Director: Errol Morris
It had probably been about 10 years since I last watched Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, and though I'd remembered that it was good, I'd forgotten just how good it is. I remembered some of the flashier elements, like the recreation of Robert Wood being shot multiple times and the shot of the milkshake flying through the air, but I'd forgotten just how chilling it is to listen to David Harris, whose relaxed and soft spoken demeanor only make him scarier. But it's not just Harris that makes the film so enduringly powerful, nor the fact the film actually had a measurable impact on the life of its subject by playing a role in Randall Adams' eventual release from prison. Rather, the film remains so powerful because of the craft of its construction and the fact that time and imitators have not in the least chipped away at that sense of craft.
On November 27, 1976 a chance encounter would forever tie the life of Randall Adams to that of David Harris. The former was a recent arrival in Dallas whose car had run out of gas, spotted walking down the road by the former, a teenager on a crime spree. Later that evening, the car Harris had been driving (which he'd stolen from a neighbor in Vidor, Texas) would be pulled over and the driver would shoot police officer Robert Wood dead and flee the scene. The only witness was Wood's partner, who could offer only a vague (and ultimately incorrect) description of the vehicle, which resulted in the police spending days searching for the wrong type of car. Eventually, in Vidor, word would start to get around that Harris had been bragging about being responsible for the murder, but when questioned by police he claimed that, though he was taking credit for it, it was Adams who had committed the crime. Adams would then be picked up and later put on trial, with the prosecution bringing out three supposed witnesses whose testimony helped secure a conviction along with a death sentence.
Morris, who prior to making the film had been working as a private investigator, approaches the story in a very methodical way, chipping away at the "evidence" until there is almost nothing left. The police witness (who appears in the film only in still photos and as depicted in the reenactments of the crime) is basically useless and the suggestion is that this is as a result of her failure to follow protocol. The official story is that she was standing to the rear of the car when Wood approached the driver's side window, but the suggestion is that she never left the police cruiser, where she and Wood had been having takeout before pulling over the car, which would explain why she could recall nothing about the car save the color. The other "witnesses" are people of questionable motives, who may or may not have been looking to collect a reward for information or looking to have criminal charges against themselves or family members dropped in exchange for their testimony. Then there's the star witness, Harris, whose story is that Adams, who had no prior history of criminal activity and didn't know that the car was stolen, shot Wood in cold blood while Harris sat hunched down in the passenger seat. Of all the shocking things depicted in the film, the most shocking is the fact that Harris, a living embodiment of a sociopath and a man who already had an extensive criminal record at 16, could ever be considered believable... if, of course, you're generous enough to give the prosecutor the benefit of the doubt that he actually believed Harris was telling the truth.
Although The Thin Blue Line is about one very specific case, it's also in its way an indictment of the criminal justice system itself. In an adversarial system like this one, "winning" can take a backseat to justice and towards the end of the film one of Adams' lawyers suggests that the prosecutor (who had a "perfect" record of convictions) pursued Adams not because of the evidence, but because he wanted to get a death penalty conviction and knew that he could not by pursuing Harris, who was only 16 when the crime was committed. Meanwhile, Harris would be free to continue committing crimes, including the 1985 murder which would result in his imprisonment and eventual execution. The Thin Blue Line is impossible to watch without becoming angry at how easy it is for something as vital as the criminal justice system to become corrupted by self-interest, yet the film itself is not really angry in tone. This is a very even toned film, a story matter-of-factly told after a dogged effort to get at the truth.
The aesthetics employed by Morris in The Thin Blue Line have been much imitated since its initial release, which can make it difficult to appreciate just how innovative the film was at the time, particularly in terms of its use of reenactments. Yet, while its methods have become more commonplace, that hasn't diminished the effect of the film, which remains engaging and fascinating. The Thin Blue Line isn't just one of the best films of one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today, it's one of the best and most important documentaries ever made.