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‘The Thin Blue Line’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 02, 1988

Errol Morris's "The Thin Blue Line" is more like a waking nightmare than a docudrama. A true story of murder and justice evidently miscarried, wrapped in the fictional haze of a surrealistic whodunit, it will leave you in a trance for days.

Bold and brilliant, some might say reckless, Morris's defense of convicted prisoner Randall Dale Adams might not stand up in a court of law, or a screening room of documentary purists. But it would transfix the lot. Morris takes the hybrid docudrama genre to its outer limits, intercutting newspaper headlines, bullet-wound diagrams and Texas road maps with grade-B film noir fare: a hypnotist's swinging watch, overstuffed ashtrays, smoking guns and repeated replays of the incident that changed Adams' life -- the fatal shooting of Dallas police officer Robert Wood in cold blood one November night in 1976. The dramatic embellishments, which include a pointedly eerie score by Philip Glass and Morris's chilling final "kicker," fly in the face of "objective" fact-finding. But "Thin Blue Line" earns its documentary impact with the impassioned testimony of real people involved in the case.

Morris, who made two wacky documentaries -- "Gates of Heaven" about two pet cemeteries and "Vernon, Florida" about a community of eccentric oldtimers -- seems to have a gift for getting people to gab."Thin Blue Line" is a sideshow of human foibles, exposing the shady backroom deals, unreliable testimony and courtroom players that characterized this case. With its peculiar sense of flamboyant integrity, "Thin Blue Line" becomes an awesome indictment of America.

The emotional impact is spearheaded by Adams himself. A softspoken man with dewy blue eyes, he intones with quiet conviction. "Why did I meet this kid?" he says, still incredulous after 11 years. "I dunno. Why did I run out of gas at that time? I dunno. But it happened . . . It was like I was meant to be there." The "kid" in question is David Harris, a troubled 16-year-old who had given the stranded Adams a ride earlier that night and who later fingered Adams as the murderer. Adams claims Harris had dropped him off at a motel hours before the incident. But Harris, whose chillingly babyish features will not easily leave your memory (and who bragged to friends that he had "offed a pig"), told the jury Adams gunned Woods down from the passenger seat. Which one is guilty? A Texas jury was quick to sentence Adams to death in 1977 (his sentence has recently been commuted to life). But Morris's conclusions, propelled by the killer's startling confession, are overwhelmingly persuasive.

"Thin Blue Line" shouldn't be missed. It's more than fact, and more than fiction.

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