Thursday, October 18, 2012

As Perfect a Documentary As You Will Ever Find: "The Thin Blue Line" (1988)

In November 1976 in Dallas, Texas, Police Officer Robert Wood was shot and killed while making an otherwise routine traffic stop. One man was arrested and sentenced to death for the crime, based on the testimony of a sixteen year old acquaintance. These basic facts are covered in one of the most brilliant films to come out of the 1980's.

Randall Adams was no drifter. He was moving from Ohio and was staying in Dallas with his brother. He found a good job, and planned on living there a while. Then he met David Harris, a punk from a Ku Klux Klan-infested small town in southern Texas. The officer is murdered, and Harris blames Adams, even though Harris gloated about shooting the young cop to his friends.

Adams was railroaded into prison while Harris embarked on a petty crime spree. He continued his misdemeanor ways until he actually killed a man during a botched kidnapping. Now Harris was in jail, and Adams was still appealing his conviction. Witnesses came forward claiming to have seen Adams shoot Wood, yet none of them have a gleam of credibility. Finally, Adams gets some decent lawyers, who begin working to get him out. He is granted an appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court, but as of the making of the film, he was still serving life in prison. A little research shows Adams was eventually released, thanks to this film, and Harris all but confessed to shooting the policeman.

Errol Morris goes where few documentary makers go. He films convincing reenactments of the crime. These are not "Unsolved Mysteries"-type reenactments, Morris has a real director's eye, and gives the audience every detail needed- from a tossed milkshake to the number of people spotted in the killer's car. Philip Glass adds a haunting musical score that gets under your skin and hypnotizes you.

The convict Adams is a sincere man, and the film makers are obviously rooting for his cause. Harris is an ignorant punk, enjoying playing games with people's lives. If the Dallas County prosecutors had done their job, Harris would not have committed his second murder. Food for thought. Harris' final interview, done on audio cassette, is chilling, and will make a believer of anyone who otherwise thought "this could never happen to me." The three witnesses to the slaying are a joke, two in it for the reward, and a salesman who boasts of his photographic memory but cannot recall if Wood's patrol car was in front of or behind Harris' stolen vehicle.

"The Thin Blue Line" is more than talking heads, this is a searing story that puts to shame any fiction that tries to cover the same ground. For this kind of thing to happen to an innocent man, it is also scary as hell. (* * * * *) out of five stars.