One thing that you might notice about Errol Morris‘ groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line is that he never identifies anyone when they appear onscreen, a practice that has become seemingly customary in most modern documentaries. It’s a particular curiosity given the fact that Morris’ documentary is, to a degree, foremost concerned with identification, specifically in finding the murderer of Robert Wood, a Dallas policeman who was gunned down during a routine pull-over. After a preliminary investigation, police arrested and eventually charged Randall Adams, a 28-year-old Ohio native making his way out to California with his brother, for the murder, and he was finally tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment. But as we come to find out through interviews, reenactments, and shots of physical evidence, the story that this series of judicial proceedings doesn’t get at the truth of the matter.
Truth, as it turns out, is awfully malleable thing, especially in Texas. The more likely perpetrator of Wood’s murder is the man who was giving Adams a drive that day, 16-year-old David Harris, who had stolen a blue Chevy Comet that very day and went onto get drunk, stoned, and go see a cheap double-bill at the drive-in with Adams. One interviewer suggests that the switch to Adams as the lead suspect was because, due to his age, the elder man was eligible for the death penalty, but as much as the film bristles with political implications, it’s main fascination is with the intersection of fact and fiction.
Though often derided for his use of reenactments, it’s these very reenactments that act as the filmmaker’s quasi-objective counterweight to the purely subjective views and memories of the people involved with the case that he interviews. There’s also the slyly expressive ways that Morris frames and composes the talking heads: one detective has a map of districts of Dallas, while Adams is placed with dark chain-link behind him.
These are subtle notes of style, which would be easy enough to ignore amongst the tonnage of information and testimony that is proffered by Morris and his subjects, but it’s as much what makes this film a classic as the political aftermath of its release that led to Adams being freed years after the fact. His compositions not only reveal Morris’ own personality and fascinations, but also allude to his feelings on the people he is interviewing. When talking to the clearly prejudiced judge of Adams’ case, he films him in front of a tenth-floor window with a view of the whole city of Dallas, subtly suggesting his subject’s self-regarding, corrupted sense of power.
Above all, however, The Thin Blue Line is a story of Texas and, by extension, America. At one point, the interviewees talk about time spent in Vidor, Texas, where Harris committed another crime during what one defense attorney considers a spree. As is explained, Vidor is one of the most racist areas of Texas, and the prosecutor on Adams’ case uses his influence to stir-up the court of public opinion down there, suggesting the defense attorneys were lefties working against long-held biases. As Morris suggests, a case as emotionally turbulent as the murder of a police officer makes people look for a distinct narrative, even if its a total fiction, and the want to have the supposed, of-age perpetrator of the crime killed by the state, rather than to believe a teenaged good ol’ boy was the killer.
Truth and real justice is far more messier, far more strange, than what the people who helped get Adams get convicted are willing to cop to, and each one of these people has their own personal narrative that they’ve become helplessly entangled in. One witness, for instance, is a fan of pulp detective stories and, as is explained, took every chance to give police officers tips on people who she believes to be doing wrong. She sees herself as an avenger, and her role in Adams’ case – its too good to spoil – fits nicely into that narrative. There are several instances of this kind of psychology in Morris’ breakout, and each of these perspectives reach back to a belief in justice and moralistic retribution that is increasingly hard to believe in when we talk about the modern American justice system.
The Thin Blue Line is currently available for streaming on Netflix and Hulu.