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‘The Thin Blue Line’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 02, 1988

As a detective story, Errol Morris' documentary "The Thin Blue Line" is riveting, stylish, swirling with evocative detail. The facts in the case, the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer, accumulate to a point of mind-boggling density. They keep coming at us, in the form of charts, pictures, reenactments, artist's renderings, file documents, interviews, eyewitness testimony, one after another, all in dizzying profusion.

Out of this whirlwind of enthralling, perplexing data, Morris creates in us a fierce need to know. Watching his film, we find ourselves digging in with him, trying to make sense of it all, to solve the crime and unmask the criminal. There's an added urgency here, too, in that Randall Adams, the man convicted of the killing and sentenced to die, appears to be innocent, and another man, David Harris, who was the prosecution's chief witness, and who bragged to his friends that he committed the crime, and who is currently on death row for another murder, appears to be guilty.

Very few documentaries, or, for that matter, movies of any kind, exert this sort of hypnotic pull. It grabs you like a good mystery novel. But perhaps only real-life events are this rich in complexity and ambiguity. The form Morris uses for his existential explorations is a new one -- a sort of documentary thriller. And his method, which marries a True Detective sensibility to the fact-gathering techniques of the documentarian, keeps asking us to make comparisons between art and reality.

On the surface, the film is a James M. Cain tale told "Rashomon"-style -- a single dramatic event seen from multiple points of view. Through the testimonies of the principals and Morris' staged reenactments, we learn that police officer Robert Wood and his partner pulled over a vehicle being driven without its lights on, that Wood walked up to speak to the driver and, as he reached the door, was shot five times before the driver sped away.

We learn also that Harris, who was 16 at the time, had stolen a car, a pistol and a shotgun from a neighbor and driven to Dallas, where, after a few days, he picked up Adams, 28, who was walking along a road to where his car had run out of gas. It's later in the story, after they'd whiled away the day drinking and smoking grass and spent part of the evening at a drive-in watching "Student Body" and "Swinging Cheerleaders," a couple of soft-core porno films, that their accounts diverge. Harris claims that he slumped down in the front seat as Adams pulled the trigger; Adams says that Harris dropped him off at least two hours before the crime was committed, that he watched a little of "The Carol Burnett Show" on the tube and went to sleep.

Morris doesn't attempt a cool, balanced presentation of the evidence here-he approaches us not so much as a jury to be wooed as an audience to be provoked. His is a more personal response to the material, and one that moves beyond questions of guilt or innocence to address deeper philosophical issues. At the center of the film are the two men, Adams and Harris, who take on in our eyes the qualities of great fictional characters. Morris is acute in his perceptions about the arbitrariness of fate, about how a man can accept a ride from a stranger and have his life changed forever. This aspect of the film is wrenchingly ironic, as if Adams were the victim of a horrifying joke. Throughout, Morris creates a mood of poised anticipation, and the Philip Glass score and the stylized lighting help transform the movie into an arena for the somber contemplation of the fallibility of perception.

The physical facts in the case-Officer Wood's flashlight, his partner's chocolate shake, the arc of the wounded man's dancerly pivot as the first bullet hit his wrist-are seized upon with superrealistic intensity. There's an obsessiveness in the way Morris, who has a degree in philosophy and once worked as a private detective, keeps running these details by us, over and over, in different order and from different angles. It's as if he were trying to wring the truth out of them-maybe if we looked at them one more time, he seems to be saying, we'd catch something we missed before and it would all come clear. Yet the facts remain maddeningly contrary-David Harris' fur collar becomes Randall Adams' bushy hair, a Vega becomes a Comet, one passenger becomes two.

In addition to the basics of the case, what we get from the film are atmospheric details, some meaningful, some merely curious, almost all of them fascinating. We're given a taste, for example, of the pickup life styles of drifters and runaways, of drive-ins and convenience stores and shabby motels by the interstate. Though there's nothing condescending in Morris' attitude, something in his approach keeps his subjects at a tidy distance from us. And from him. This is partly, one suspects, a philosophical distance that allows him to view them dispassionately. But the physical space in which many of the interviews are conducted-Morris' presence is hinted at only by the off-camera cast of his subjects' eyes-is far from neutral. The light, the exaggerated camera angles, the art direction, all create a hyped environment. It's as if the fictional reenactments were exerting a kind of pull on the factual sequences, drawing the whole of the story into the realm of pulp.

Morris' attack here is visceral-he wants us to feel these details, to experience what happened as if we were, well, watching a movie. There's a danger here, though, that Morris almost avoids, but not quite. He invites us to respond to his story as just that, a story. But the whole point is that it really happened. Real people were involved, real blood was shed, real lives were lost or destroyed. That it's real is what gives "characters" such as Adams their grandeur.

Morris seems not to have fully comprehended this, or else has become so absorbed by his existential questioning that the point is buried. And this failing is crucial. When we watch Harris as he, completely without affect, reconstructs his actions, we think, "What would it take to move him? What would make an impression?" Perhaps part of his amorality comes from not registering the reality of his actions. And Morris' approach seems to participate, unwittingly, in this debasement. In this sense, the film may be too stylish, too much the well-crafted work of art.

As a record of the case, "The Thin Blue Line" (from the prosecuting attorney's description of the police as a fragile barrier separating civilization from anarchy) is dubious at best. The same characteristics of Morris' style that make it an engrossing story of tragic coincidence and justice gone wrong disqualify it as a factual document. He seems to have fallen heavily on Adams' side, and, whether he wanted to or not, he creates in us at the very least a reasonable doubt of Adams' guilt. But even though you may agree with the filmmaker, you can't help but feel uncomfortable-maybe feel the lawyer in you come out-with the way he has hyped his material. Other documentarians before Morris have smudged the distinction between fact and fiction. But here the smudging seems almost irresponsible, and you may feel yourself wanting to fight against the conclusions that Morris comes to, not because they're incorrect, but because there's the chance they were come to unfairly.

Copyright The Washington Post

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