Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Movie with a Mission: A Look Back at Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line
The Thin Blue Line is the documentary that made me fall in love with documentaries. Errol Morris may have (deservedly) won his Oscar for The Fog of War, but in many ways, I will always consider The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988, to be his masterpiece. Super Size Me may have forced McDonald's to remove its largest meals from the menu, and Bowling for Columbine may have pressured Wal-mart to stop selling gun ammunition (both good things), but Morris' Thin Blue Line was actually instrumental in overturning a murder charge and having an innocent man released from prison. Like Roshimon, the stories of drifter Randall Adams and juvenile delinquent David Harris diverge in recalling the fateful night when they met and a murder took place. With a need to solve the murder case quickly (and, it's argued in the film, a desire for the death penalty), the DA's office in Dallas rushes to charge and convict Adams, since Harris -- 16 at the time -- would have been too young to receive a death sentence. Adams is found guilty and his sentence is ultimately commuted to life in prison. Morris, who is able to interview all of the principle players in this drama, gets what amounts to a confession from Harris, who at the time of the film, was (ironically) awaiting a death sentence for murdering another man during an attempted kidnapping. (On June 30, 2004, at age 43, Harris was executed by lethal injection for that crime.) But even without Harris' death row "confession," the film skillfully shows how Adams was most likely innocent. I rented the film again recently and watched it with the same fascination I had the first time I saw it. It reminded me of another murder that occurred in Dallas. (I remember reading in Esquire magazine that when Oliver Stone began making JFK he truly believing his film would "solve" the mystery of who was behind JFK's assassination, but as filming went on, and more and more theories were being presented, it became clear that no such resolution would ever be reached.) Here, Morris DOES solve a mystery, by meticulously piecing together testimony and events and showing them over and over until a clear picture begins to emerge. Ultimately, Stone's attempt with JFK, although valiant, points a finger at EVERYONE in the President's murder. Here, Morris hones his skills as a filmmaker as if he was a detective, and takes the audience along for the ride. The Thin Blue Line shows the power of documentaries to not only shed light on events long since passed but to also, at times, correct them. I am still in awe of this film. Have you seen it? What did you think?