The Thin Blue Line is a docudrama released in 1988. Directed by Errol Morris and produced by Mark Lipson in association with Channel 4 (U. K), the documentary follows the controversial and fascinating true events surrounding the arrest and conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a police officer in Dallas named Robert Wood back in 1976. The movie used expressionistic reenactments, interview material and music by Philip Glass to deliver the real-life murder mystery. It also featured actual interviews with people directly involved in the controversial case.
The list includes Randall Adams (the accused); David Harris (Adam’s friend and primary witness in the trial); Gus Rose, Jackie Johnson and Marshall Touchton (Homicide detectives in Dallas), Dale Holt (Internal Affairs Investigator in Dallas), Sam Kittrell (Police detective in Vidor); Hootie Nelson, Dennis Johnson and Floyd Jackson (friends of David Harris in Vidor); Edith James and Dennis White (Defense Attorneys); Don Metcalfe (the presiding Judge); and Emily Miller and R. L. Miller (Surprise Eyewitness). The film has been hailed as one of the most influential films of the decade.
The movie deals with the sensational subject of a shooting that resulted in the death of a police officer and normally audiences would expect that a documentary dealing with such a controversial subject matter would be equally sensational also. However, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line is far from sensational in any traditional sense. Instead, it masterfully and slowly reveals a whole new point-of-view via simply allowing those involved—criminals, judges, police officers, and witnesses—to talk and detail their own personal accounts of the tragic night. The film is an investigation into the 1976 murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood.
To summarize events behind the case, in 1976 Harris testified that Adams shot and killed Wood after their car had been pulled over on their way home from a movie. Adams claimed to know nothing of the murder and insists that Harris had dropped him at his home two hours earlier before the murder occured. Local authorities believed Harris as witnesses collaborated his story which eventually lead to Adams’ conviction and a death sentence (later revoked by the Supreme Court). The film begins with Adams already in jail for 11 years, and Harris is serving time for an unrelated crime – murder.
In the interviews with Randall Adams, it is remarkable how he recalls the events in full detail, as if his time in prison has provided him ample time to think about the proceedings surrounding the crime. He recalls that he had been picked up by Harris (in a stolen car) after running out of gas. After which, the two then proceeded to watch a movie, drank beer and smoked marijuana. Adams testifies that this was the extent of their relationship. Details of Adams life—that he was a drifter, presently employed, and that he shared a room with his brother—reveal little importance.
Still, his dialogue throughout the film pulls the viewer in. The viewer sees a man who persistently and convincingly claims innocence, a man who remains obsessed with a crime from 11 years ago. In front of a captive audience he slowly evolves into a symbol of every victim who happened to be in the wrong place and who worse still, became a convenient scapegoa. David Harris also recounts the events of the fated evening in detail, however, creating a different impression. Whereas Adams never seems overly bright, cunning or capable of artifice, Harris is extremely difficult to read.
He talks a good line, but never appears apalled by the events that occurred in that night. He narrates the killing of Wood by Adams nonchalantly—as a slightly surprising event, but not as a morally reprehensible one. Although the police seemed to believe him, many others didn’t. Even Adam’s defense attorneys thought Harris was the killer, referencing his past criminal record and other crimes committed the same night of the murder. Still, Harris’ conversation casts a spell, highlighted by his casual and smooth approach. In fact, even his later crime—a murder—seems to have no effect on him.
He manages to never seem like a hardened killer on death row. The Thin Blue Line proves more profound than a more self-consciously political film might have. This non-fiction film reveals injustice, but doesn’t seem too surprised by it. It reveals eccentricities and treats them as normal. The profundity comes from Morris’ ability to reveal each character and leave us with a deeper understanding of the complexities of being human. What could be more touching than a defense attorney who leaves his profession because of his negative experience with the Adams’ trial?
Or more divulging than a judge who worries obsessively about his own vindication in the proceedings? Errol Morris’ film serves as a reminder to other filmmakers and audiences that sensational stories don’t have to be told sensationally. Nor do they need to continually remind the viewer what conclusions to draw. Instead, all one needs is the right story, a few characters who have a stake in it, and plenty of time to listen to them talk. References Lastname, N. M. (YEAR). Title (“article”). Source. Publication/Location/Website.