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The Thin Blue Line

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A fantastic film, which I had seen some years ago - my local video store had the VHS copy out for sale and I managed to snag it. Just watching it again this evening and was struck by an interesting piece.

Don't read the review below [spoiler warning] if you have not seen but intend to watch the film sometime - just skim down to the next quote, taken from a transcript of the film, which I found remarkable.


The shooting death of a police officer is a sensational subject. Most audiences would expect a documentary made about a police officer’s shooting death to be sensational also. But Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line is not sensational in any traditional sense. Instead, it is a masterful film that slowly reveals a hidden universe by simple allowing everyone involved—criminals, judges, police officers, and witnesses—to talk and then talk some more. Slowly, the viewer is pulled into the surreal world of Randall Adams (the accused), David Harris (the accuser), and a small Texas town’s justice system.

On one level, the film is an investigation into the 1976 murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. Harris testified that Adams had shot and killed Wood after their car had been pulled over on their way home from a movie. Adams claimed to know nothing of the murder, insisting that Harris had dropped him at his home two hours before it occurred. Local authorities believed Harris, and witnesses collaborated his story, leading to Adams’ conviction and a death sentence (later revoked by the Supreme Court). As the film begins, Adams has been in jail 11 years, and Harris is serving time for an unrelated crime.

Randall Adams recalls the events in detail, as though prison has provided him ample time to think about the proceedings surrounding the crime. After running out of gas, he had been picked up by Harris in a stolen car. The two had gone to a movie where they drank beer and smoked marijuana, and this was the extent of their relationship. The individual details of Adams life—that he was a drifter, presently employed, and that he shared a room with his brother—reveal little of importance. Still, his dialogue throughout the film has a magnetism that pulls the viewer in. The viewer watches a man who persistently and convincingly claims his own innocence, and who remains obsessed with a crime that took place 11 years earlier. He slowly evolves into a symbol of every victim who just happens to be in the wrong place and who worse still, becomes a convenient scapegoat for local authorities.

David Harris also recalls the events of the evening in detail, but creates a much different impression. Whereas Adams never seems overly bright or capable of artifice, Harris is extremely difficult to read. He certainly talks a good line, but he never seems perplexed by the series of events that has occurred. He describes the killing of Wood by Adams rather dispassionately—as a slightly surprising event, but not as a morally reprehensible one. Although the police seemed to believe him, many others didn’t. Adam’s defense attorneys thought that Harris was the killer, pointing to his past criminal record and other crimes committed the night of the murder. Still, Harris’ conversation casts a spell, highlighted by his casual and smooth approach. Even his later crime—a murder—seems to have left no marked change on him. He never seems like a hardened killer on death row.

There are a number of other interviews that add to the evidence, and nearly all of them seem to point away from Adams as the killer. It is amazing that these people agreed to talk to Morris, and they probably never would have if they could’ve seen the outtakes (though for all I know, they did). Along with providing evidence about the case, they offer personal tidbits that are entertaining, odd, and sad. It is fascinating, for instance, to listen to Judge Metcalfe talk about his father—an FBI agent—who was present the night John Dillinger was killed (lured by a woman in an orange, not red, dress). The interviews serve to bring the story forward while simultaneously examining a cross section of a small Texas town.

At the time of The Thin Blue Line’s release in 1988 it was hailed as a new type of documentary, one that allowed for multiple points of view. These multiple views add verisimilitude without leading to confusion. Perhaps the storyline remains clear because the evidence and chosen footage lead the viewer toward certain conclusions. The film also proved controversial in some circles where it was denied "documentary" status because of the dramatizations. This argument seems more technical than representative. The dramatizations never claim to be anything more than what they are: a recreation of a certain person’s point-of-view. In fact, certain images during these dramatizations, such as the dropping of a milkshake in slow motion, serve as lyrical symbols that highlight the realness of the film.

It would be a mistake to think that every person would be fascinating if captured by Morris’ camera. First and foremost, The Thin Blue Line is an extraordinary story, and when the characters talk about their role in it, they are often interesting too. It should also be noted that Morris doesn’t allow equal time to every character. Judge Metcalfe adds little relevant information to the story but is given more time, perhaps because he’s interestingly strange. Adams’ defense attorneys, two of the "straighter" people in the film, are given less time. In a way the story is a meditation on characters who live on the fringe of society, either economically or psychologically, and who just happen to be caught up in a bizarre story. On a Bell curve, the story and the characters would fall to either extreme.

The Thin Blue Line proves more profound than a more self-consciously political film might have. This non-fiction film reveals injustice, but doesn’t seem too surprised by it. It reveals eccentricities and treats them as normal. The profundity comes from Morris’ ability to reveal each character and leave us with a deeper understanding of the complexities of being human. What could be more touching than a defense attorney who leaves his profession because of his negative experience with the Adams’ trial? Or more divulging than a judge who worries obsessively about his own vindication in the proceedings? Errol Morris’ film serves as a reminder to other filmmakers and audiences that sensational stories don’t have to be told sensationally. Nor do they need to continually remind the viewer what conclusions to draw. Instead, all one needs is the right story, a few characters who have a stake in it, and plenty of time to listen to them talk.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Melvyn Bruder

The Dallas Morning News had a very nice front page story, either the same day or the day after the reversal was announced by the Supreme Court, in which Henry Wade, the District Attorney, vowed a retrial of Randall Dale Adams because there was no room in his book for a cop-killer getting off with anything else than the death penalty.

I took that to heart. I thought I was going to get my chance. For reasons that were never really made public, Mr. Wade requested the governor to commute Mr. Adams' death penalty to life and that eliminated that possibility of a retrial based on the reversal.


I mean I was shocked. I can't help but believe that some of the motivation behind that decision was the fear that Adams maybe vindicated at a retrial.

Dennis White

I just felt they prosecuted the wrong person and I don't know why. I felt that some policeman, whether in Vidor or in Dallas made a decision about who to prosecute and set the wheel of justice in motion in the wrong direction and they got going so fast no one could stop them. And so I felt it was up to me to stop them and I didn't...And then I felt it was up to the Supreme Court and they did what they could but then...It's all gotten messed up and derailed again.

Since his trial I have given up my practice of criminal law. I have not had a jury trial since I heard the verdict of this jury in this case, and don't intend to. I just feel like I'll let other people handle these problems for a while because if justice can miscarry so badly, I 'd rather do something else.

Melvyn Bruder

Prosecutors in Dallas have said for years, "Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man: it takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man."


Edited by Lee Forman
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