In recent days, true crime sagas like the popular podcast Serial and the HBO documentary series The Jinx have captivated the general public. In both series, the producers re-examine old murder cases and do in-depth investigative work in an attempt to find pieces of evidence that might have been missed by law enforcement. These works have been heralded by many as a new form of storytelling, one which not only details sordid crimes but also challenges the legal system's interpretation of them. Even so, both Serial and The Jinx are essentially borrowing ideas from Errol Morris' 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, which also examined a real-life murder case. Indeed, nearly every crime documentary made since the release of that film owes a debt to Morris, who set the template for the genre in terms of both narrative structure and technical presentation.
In October of 1976, a young man named Randall Adams left his home state of Ohio and began making a slow trek to California. Around Thanksgiving, he stopped in Dallas, and eventually decided that he would stay there for a while. One morning, his car ran out of gas. A 16-year-old named David Ray Harris stopped and offered Adams a ride in a stolen car. The two hit it off rather quickly, and decided to spend the day together. They drank, they smoked weed and went to a drive-in double feature together. The second half of the double feature was a smutty cheerleader flick, which made the somewhat conservative Adams a little uncomfortable. He said he wanted to leave, and Harris begrudgingly agreed.
Later that night, two police officers spotted the stolen car and pulled it over – not because they knew it was stolen, but because the headlights were off. One of the officers walked up to the stolen car while his partner (one of the few female officers on patrol in Dallas) waited in the patrol car. The driver – whoever it was – pulled out a pistol and shot the officer twice, killing him. Eventually, the stolen car was connected to Harris. After being arrested, Harris accused Adams of committing the murder. The police believed the story, and Adams was arrested, tried, convicted and given a life sentence. End of story.
At least, it would have been were it not for Morris' intuition that something about the case felt off. The director spent years convincing everyone connected to the case – Adams, Harris, attorneys, friends, family members, etc. - to appear on camera and provide their version of the story. Employing insightful questions, methodical research and a great deal of patience, Morris pieces together a persuasive argument for Adams' innocence, detailing the flimsy circumstantial evidence used in the case, the suspect nature of the witness testimonies heard and – most damningly – a number of key admissions from Harris (who was already on death row for the murder of an entirely different person when the film was shot).
The Thin Blue Line is an incredibly important film, not just because it underlines some deep-rooted flaws in our legal system but because it had a real world-impact. The public conversation inspired by the film's release led to a retrial, and the District Attorney's office subsequently decided not to re-prosecute Adams. As a result, Adams was released and permitted to live out the rest of his days in peace. That's an astonishing accomplishment, one of the all-too-rare instances in which a documentary goes beyond mere “raising awareness” and inspires actual change. It's also a little infuriating, knowing that a filmmaker was far more thorough and thoughtful in his examination of a case than anyone else had been. Morris had to do a job the authorities failed to do, and he saved an innocent man in the process.
It's worth noting that Morris doesn't care to use the term “documentary” when describing the film, despite the fact that the vast majority of it is comprised of interviews with real people discussing a real-life situation. The director employs elegantly-staged reenactments of the crime at various points throughout the documentary, and the technique proved so effective that it quickly became common practice in crime documentaries (alas, most of them handle the task with far less skill than Morris). These scenes occasionally give The Thin Blue Line the rhythm of a traditional cinematic thriller, and that feeling is (literally) underscored by original music from Philip Glass, whose see-sawing motifs are particularly well-employed. The film may not be quite as riveting today as it was in 1988, as it's lost that sense of cultural immediacy. Even so, it remains a gripping film because Morris offers good storytelling in addition to good reporting. Time and time again, Morris has expanded the boundaries of the documentary format. The Thin Blue Line isn't quite my favorite of his works (that would be his strange, beautiful debut Gates of Heaven), but it's quite possibly his most important.
The Thin Blue Line
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 1988