When the Criterion Collection scheduled this week’s release of their new DVD and Blu-ray special edition of Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, they could never have guessed the fortuity of their timing. What was initially a typical Criterion catalog release became a savvy bit of synchronicity thanks to the pop-culture ubiquity of Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx, a true crime documentary series whose hypnotic score and stylish reenactments owe no small debt to Morris’ film. But The Jinx is just one of many offspring of Thin Blue Line, which launched something of a subgenre of true crime documentaries — many of them taking up the causes of innocent men, wrongly accused. Why are we so drawn to these stories?
Such stories have become such a part of the documentary fabric that it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking Morris’ film was. In a world populated by archive-heavy historical documentaries and fly-on-the-wall cinema verite observations, Morris forged new stylistic territory (and prompted more than a few naysayers) for his use of an original score and reenactments, both all but verboten at the time in nonfiction film. But also unusual was his choice of subject matter: an obscure and long-forgotten crime, which he took the opportunity to re-investigate.
Said crime was the murder of Robert W. Wood, a Dallas police officer who was shot during a traffic stop over Thanksgiving weekend, 1976. A man named Randall Adams was arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime — sentenced to death, in spite of a lack of physical evidence, the entire case resting on the testimony of several questionable witnesses. The dodgiest of them was David Harris, a juvenile offender who stole the car being pulled over, stole the gun used in the crime, and claimed to be in the driver’s seat when Adams pulled the trigger. But in an interview with Morris, during his own incarceration for a later crime, Harris said he was certain Adams didn’t commit the crime, “’cause I’m the one that knows.”
The story of the innocent man wrongly accused is a favorite of fiction writers and novelists — hell, Hitchcock built a career on it. Part of the reason we respond so viscerally to these stories is because of the vastness and impenetrability of the criminal justice system; it seems terrifyingly possible to be caught in its machinery, and unable to escape. In the case of Adams, as his attorney Dennis White notes, someone, for some reason (the chain of discovery, a desire to pin the death penalty on an adult), “set the wheels of justice in motion in the wrong direction, and they got going so fast no one could stop them.”
It’s all too easy to imagine ourselves caught in those wheels — and thus, it’s easy to see a filmmaker like Morris as the kind of advocate we’d want on our side. Having supported himself for three years as a private investigator, The Thin Blue Line was an opportunity for him to merge his two skills, digging deep into the tiny details of the decade-old case and training his camera on those who had something to gain from Adams’ conviction. His hands-off style — which amounts to giving his interviewees enough rope to hang themselves — results in a clear picture of what really happened in Dallas, and an indirect confession from the man who, by that point at the end of the film, Morris has made a very strong case against.
“The scales (of justice) are not balanced,” says surprise witness Michael Randell. “They might go up for you, and down for somebody else.” And this is what’s so invigorating about films like these — whether it’s The Thin Blue Line, the Paradise Lost trilogy, or West of Memphis, contributing to the release of innocent parties; The Central Park Five or The Trials of Daryl Hunt, detailing the conviction of innocent men; or The Jinx and Deliver Us From Evil, exposing the crimes of men who got away with it (for a time, at least). We tend to treat films and mini-series as escapism, perhaps as education. But these are films that might save a life — either of someone in jail who shouldn’t be, or of someone who might step into the path of those who should be.
“There’s probably been thousands of innocent people convicted, and (there will) probably be thousands more,” says David Harris in that key, final interview of The Thin Blue Line, and he should know. But then, we all know that the justice system is impossible — that the blindfolded Lady Justice figure, unsurprisingly, often misses a thing or two. And this is the particular satisfaction of films like these; we recognize injustice all around us, and so it’s especially gratifying to see it corrected. But even more than that, when we see Randall Adams rotting in his cell in The Thin Blue Line, or Daryl Hunt fighting two decades for his release in The Trials of Daryl Hunt, or (worst of all) Cameron Todd Willingham’s lethal injection in Incendiary: The Willingham Case, we can imagine ourselves in their shoes, and shudder.
The Thin Blue Line is out Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.