Review: The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Of all his films, The Thin Blue Line is perhaps the most superb example of Errol Morris’ personality manifesting itself on screen. It employs many of his stylistic trademark techniques and aesthetics in a strident effort to convey what he feels is an obvious miscarriage of justice regarding the 1976 murder of a police officer in Dallas. Morris’ film is a considered defence, constructed using interviews with the accused Randall Adams, and the prime witness in his prosecution, David Harris, whom Morris portrays as the only person who could rationally have committed the murderer. These points are underscored by larger thematic targets for Morris; the duplicity and corruption of police, the horrors of capital punishment and the criminal justice system, and how innocence until proven guilty isn’t always assured. By exploring these areas, Morris ultimately imparts a set of moral and even political imprints in The Thin Blue Line.
Outside of filmmaking, Errol Morris had gained some experience in the field of private investigation and The Thin Blue Line is an exemplary exercise in – and for its time, a radical approach to – investigative documentary filmmaking. The film started life under different pretences as an assessment of the expert witness psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson. Known as Dr. Death for his specialty in securing the death penalty for criminal defendants, he suggested Morris talk to some of his victims, one of whom was Randall Adams. Spurred by this personal motivation to expose systemic injustice, the story of Randall Adams ultimately became Morris’ focus, eventually becoming The Thin Blue Line.
Morris’ reason for making the film are clear; to free Adams from the wrongful sentence on death row which he’d endured for the last 11 years on unsubstantiated and corrupt charges of murder. Very recently Morris has become more upfront about this, stating:
“I was focused when I was making The Thin Blue Line on getting Randall Adams out of prison. For me, there had been a terrible miscarriage of justice and I wanted to set it right. So my focus – if you like – wasn’t on David Harris in the sense of understanding him, but my focus was on proving that he was the killer.”
Having met earlier in the day,
Randall Adams and David Harris was pulled over by patrol officers for an inconsequential vehicle defect. Adams’ version of what happened next, the predominant truth portrayed in the film, is that Harris reached over and shot the approaching officer dead. After retiring to a motel Adams was charged with the murder and received a death sentence, commuted to life on a technicality.
The methods which Morris deftly employs to convey ‘his truth’ borrow slightly from elements of investigative journalism, whilst not being easily categorised in terms of any strict, structuralist film genre or style. Raw, monologue driven interview material with stylised lighting is cut alongside noir-ish reenactments, giving The Thin Blue Line an overall sense of genre irregularity. Diverging from the standard of the time, reenactments in the film don’t carry an on screen title to earmark them as dramatisations. Montage is also used to present evidence in ways that makes the audience reevaluate aspects of the case. When the dead officer’s partner recalls details about the killer’s vehicle that are hazy, a series of similar looking numberplates flash by so as to make the audience question the fallibility of their own problematic perception. The technique is used again to trivialise the officer’s weak recollection of the car’s tail light and model.
We are assailed with combinations which seem impossible to retain in memory, thus the officer’s evidence concerning the car model or headlight seem unlikely, and we come to doubt future assertions from her, which all favour Adams as the killer. As Errol Morris himself says:
“Memory is an elastic affair. We remember selectively, just as we perceive selectively. We have to go back over perceived and remembered events, in order to figure out what happened, what really happened.“
The subjective truths and recollections in The Thin Blue Line are usually murky, especially so for the police officer character’s in Morris’ narrative. As an audience, we want to find out which of the conflicting stories being presented is the truth. In this regard, the film assumes a formula more akin to a Hitchcock film rather than a documentary. Centering around Adams, who protests his innocence and is seemingly caught up in the wrong place, it engages us with the same anticipation and ‘need to know’ as any Hitchcockian masterpiece. Is Harris or Adams the killer? Morris presents their perspectives, along with numerous interviewees in a directorially constructed argument that is aimed at guiding the viewer to seeing Morris’ ultimate truths; that Adams is innocent and the justice system has greatly miscarried.
The central reenactment of the film depicts the various interviewees versions of the murder. It replays several times, each reiteration supplying additions of evidentiary detail. The film begs comparison to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in which a central murder is also retold multiple times, each from a contrary perspective. The noir style of The Thin Blue Line’s reenactments is befitting the ‘plot’, events in which Randall Adams is embroiled but cannot alter; a life and death predicament he never started (a common plot device in noir films). In a departure from the prevailing cinema verite style of the time, the reenacted murder and other staged, storyboarded sequences, are certainly not intended as a faithful reconstruction of events. By repeating the reenactment from conflicting perspectives, notably Adams’ and Harris’, Morris skillfully incorporates the ambiguous authenticity of reenactments into his storytelling. Multiple accounts are visualised to either validate or discredit them. Despite the reenactments use as an evaluation mechanism for the audience, the film was rejected for an Academy Award for Best Documentary as it was deemed fictional, due to reenacted scenes and presumably its postmodern style. I believe however, that the reenactments make us question truth in a filmic amalgam of art and reality, even if they do flaunt documentary’s penchant for objectivity as the norm. In The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris has created a filmic truth which airs his obvious and well-founded bias toward Adams.
The order in which facts surrounding the case are revealed is also a clear directorial imprint signifying Adams’ innocence. Starting with prologue sequences telling us the facts in the case, Adams describes the proceedings and his treatment by police. Despite being described as a ‘drifter’, the accused murderer is portrayed as a pleasant, hardworking man.
Then we hear from Harris who we learn has prior criminal history. When the frame widens to include his orange prison clothes, we learn that he too is incarcerated. After Harris and the law enforcement officials are afforded their arguments, the director then edits in the accused man’s rebuttal, effectively restating his version of the events. This technique of giving Adams the ‘final word’ is employed in many other sequences of the film where conjecture arises from Harris’ and Adams’ accounts.
This randomised chronology bears Morris’ imprint as much as the stylistic choices found in the film’s reenactments. It was also fresh and original, at a time when documentary was largely associated with expository films that told their story in an essay-like format, guided by voice of god narration. In an effort to convey his perceived truth, Errol Morris interweaves the perspectives of all involved, yet expressionistic directorial touches in reenactments (or voice of god narration for that matter) don’t guarantee truths. Morris simply uses them filmic tools with which to build his case. As Adams speaks of the weary length of his interrogation, Morris embellishes our senses with an image of an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, also denoting Adams’ nervousness and resignation. The passing of time is also communicated by the many ticking clocks and timepieces shown throughout the film.
These elements become motifs which also focus our attention to small yet crucial details. The milkshake belonging to the dead officer’s partner spills in slow motion and lands in a spot contradicting the officer’s story. The slow motion, key-light motifs show us how doubt can be infused in memories.
However, Errol Morris never shows actors’ faces in reenactments. There is no suggestion imparted by facial expression, no incongruity with the faces of participants who are interviewed. Staged scenes are shot close-up, and like the motifs, the director withholds contextual information to keep us intent on finding out more. Unlike docudrama style films, there are no words spoken during the reenactments. A lot is left for us to infer.
In more light hearted moments, the testimonials of Mrs. Miller (who fancies herself as a sleuth) and the judge (who talks admirably of the police who brought down Dillinger) are comically paralleled with archival footage of Hollywood crime flicks, from which excerpts briefly appear. As David Bordwell states, “these sequences encourage us to see Adam’s adversaries as holding naïve, romanticised conception of crimefighting derived from popular movies”
A strong authorial trait found in most of Morris’ films, is the use of extended interview material. In place of narration, Adams states his 11 year old case with undiminished fervor. In much the same vein as Morris’ Gates of Heaven or Vernon, there is not a hint of condescension in his portrayal. No titles are used to identify interviewees, who are instead contextualised by the visual style of their framing; framing choices which promote curiosity about subject, We see the boyish features of the amiable sociopath ‘kid’, David Harris.
However, mitigating his bias for Adams, interviews are shot dispassionately enough for us to slant towards Morris’ view in our own time. Using his Interrotron technique, interviewees look directly down the camera’s lens, creating intimacy by appearing to address the audience directly. This also allows the viewer to gain a more believable impression of the talking head.
The film itself doesn’t dwell on the complexity of the facts it presents. They are but ancillary truths. It is concerned with larger philosophical questions of knowledge and truth, the arbitrariness of fate – how a hitchhike changed Adams’ life.
At the end of The Thin Blue Line, Adams is still on death row. However the director’s filmic critique of the justice system succeeded in exonerating the wrongfully convicted Adams who was eventually released. As Morris states, “I wanted to make a film about how truth was difficult to know, not impossible to know” (Bordwell & Thompson’s Film Art).