Directed by: Errol Morris
Starring: Randall Adams, David Harris and Others
Run Time: 1 Hour and 41 Minutes
Availability: Streaming on Netflix. Available for Digital Rental/Download on Amazon and iTunes. DVD is out of print and very expensive.
Certain documentary filmmakers, much like the Muckraking journalists of the 1920’s, use their camera to fight for injustice and stand up for the little guy. The most critically acclaimed documentary to take this approach is Errol Morris’ 1988 film “The Thin Blue Line.” Not only is a unique and utterly fascinating film, but it was such an impactful film that it saved an innocent man from imprisonment.
The film is about the case of Randall Adams, who in 1974 was arrested in Texas for the murder of a police officer. Adams ran out of gas on his way home and was picked up by David Harris, a teenager troublemaker with quite a police record and the two spent the whole day together. While Adams does not remember the shooting, at some point the car was stopped by police and the officer was shot and killed.
Even though all evidence pointed to the Young Harris committing the crime, he even bragged to his friends about it, Adams was still found guilty by a jury and sentenced to death. Other factors leading to Adams conviction include an overzealous prosecutor looking to keep his perfect track record, a prosecution psychologist who said Adams would kill again despite his lack of a criminal record and flawed testimonies from “eyewitnesses” who admitted they only became involved in the case for the money.
“The Thin Blue Line” is not your typical documentary. It tells the story in a way that might upset documentary purists. As Rumsay Taylor said in his review of the film for Not Coming To a Theater Near You, it’s a documentary with production values. It has a musical score, composed by well-known minimalist composer Phillip Glass, which really helps to add tension. However the most well-known aspect of the film are the crime scene re-enactments. While it is evident that these sequences are re-enacments they do not detract from the film at all. Rather they serve to enhance the film in that they give you an idea of what happened, a la reenactments on “Americas Most Wanted.”
For me the most important aspect of a documentary is the structure and how the story flows. Some documentaries tend to jump from plot point to plot point. Morris however provides an easy to follow narrative. In addition there is great use of montage style editing throughout. In one particular instance Morris shows the passage of time by focusing on an ashtray and each time it cuts to it there are more cigarettes. By using these techniques the film remains an exciting watch throughout.
Is there a bias in this film? Roger Ebert said the film “assembles an almost inassailable case for Adams and against Harris,” and Desson Howe of the Washington Post described it as a defense of Adams and an “awesome indictment of America.” Personally, I didn’t see this. While my introduction might make it seem there was a bias I found it to be a fairly objective look at the case. Never did I feel that Morris was trying to persuade the audience to take on Adams side. There are a wide variety of people involved in this case interviewed, police officers, the lawyers for Adams, the judge and I feel that Morris did not paint anyone as either a villain or a hero. Perhaps this can be attributed to the lack of narration, but Morris simply let the interviewees tell their stories. If a case is built against Harris, it is because he does it himself with his interview. Watch the film and you will see.
After its release, it made such a cultural impact that Adams conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. According to Adams’s obituary in the New York Times, he died in 2011, the district attorney declined to prosecute again and according to the paper this decision was made “largely on the basis of evidence uncovered by a filmmaker.”
“The Thin Blue Line” is also a very important film in the filmography of Morris as it is often seen as his breakout film. In addition, it represented a stylistic departure from his earlier films, which were critically acclaimed but fairly light in their subject matter. “Gates of Heaven” and “Vernon, Flordia” focused on a family running a pet cemetery business and the eccentric residents of a Florida town, respectively. His post “Thin Blue Line” films focused on more heavy subject matters. “The Fog of War,” which earned Morris an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, was about former U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara and “Standing Operating Procedure” was about the photographs taken at Abu Gharib prison in late 2003.
Morris’ film remains one of the most important contemporary documentary films and is essential viewing for anyone interested in the criminal justice system.
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