Released in 1988, “The Thin Blue Line” marked a dramatic turn for documentarian Errol Morris.
His first two films were captivating portraits. They provided intriguing and often profound insights into the lives and hearts and minds of the odd and eccentric and lonely. “Gates of Heaven” and “Vernon, Florida” were fascinating because of the way Morris managed to capture personality and philosophy in such an unassuming way. His aim was to enlighten, and on that front he succeeded marvelously.
“The Thin Blue Line,” however, shows that Morris also has it in him to go after less introspective material and go full-on detective. This is true not only because he apparently supported himself as a private investigator in the gap between “Vernon, Florida” and “The Thin Blue Line,” but for the way he approaches the material.
The film follows the case of Randall Adams, a man convicted in 1977 of the shooting death of a Dallas police officer during a traffic stop. Only, as the film successfully argues (as evidenced by the eventual overturning of his conviction) that it wasn’t Adams who committed the murder at all, but rather David Harris, the 16-year-old driver of the (stolen) vehicle.
Morris goes to great lengths to re-enact the pivotal moments of the case, as well as interview as many people as possible on both sides of the conviction. There are extensive interviews with Adams, as well as attorneys, members of law enforcement and Harris. It’s as close to a piece of true cinematic journalism as I’ve ever seen. And it was effective, too. As mentioned earlier, Adams eventually had his conviction overturned and the possibility for that came because of the research Morris did and the compelling way he presented the fairly overwhelming evidence in Adams’ favor.
That such a thing happened is a fairly tremendous thing. It literally saved Adams’ life (he was given the death penalty). It’s also a strong testament to both Morris’ capabilities as an investigator and filmmaker, as well as the ability of film to make seismic changes.
I just wish it wasn’t so boring to watch. “The Thin Blue Line” is a film that I likely would have found endlessly compelling had I watched it in the moment, in the time that Adams was still imprisoned on Death Row.
But seeing as how we’re now four years out from Adams’ death as a free man and 25 years past when he was exonerated, it’s a bit anti-climactic to watch. It’s an intriguing piece to watch as Morris stepped up his game in terms of crafting the film, certainly. He shows a flair for the cinematic in the way he intercuts interview footage with re-enacted bits and the use of Philip Glass’ ominous score works wonders in terms of setting a mood, but for the most part it just couldn’t hold my attention.
Still, it’s a film I’m glad Morris made and it actually makes me all the more interested in watching “The Unknown Known,” his upcoming documentary about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Next week, I’ll continue reviewing Morris’ work with a look at “A Brief History of Time,” followed by “The Fog of War.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.