In 1976, a Texan patrol officer named Robert W. Wood was the victim of an apparently motiveless murder when he ordered a car to pull over on a dark Dallas road. In 1977, a drifter named Randall Dale Adams was wrongfully convicted of the killing and sentenced to the electric chair. Finally, in 1988, master director Errol Morris premiered The Thin Blue Line, a landmark documentary that achieved what the justice system could not: it solved the murder and identified the true killer. As a result of the evidence Morris had presented onscreen, Randall Adams’s conviction was overturned and his freedom restored.
That story alone makes this picture worth watching. What makes it worth including in this collection is its status as one of America’s most fascinating and accomplished bits of filmmaking. The Thin Blue Line is more than just a documentary: it’s a non-fiction thriller, a murder mystery that touches on racism, corruption, perjury and the Klu Klux Klan, but revolves around an innocuous non-event, a perceived insult so slight it’s almost impossible to accept that everything that was done to Randall Adams happened because of it.
Many documentary-makers are compelled to cast themselves, if not as the star of their films, at least as a major supporting player. Morris has no such vanity, and removes himself from The Thin Blue Line as completely as Truman Capote removed himself from the events of In Cold Blood. Not once in the film do we see or hear our director. Instead, like all investigators, we are alone with the facts and fictions of the case, the witnesses and the would-be witnesses, and our instinct to somehow sort it all out. The static camera studies its subjects so intently, and Morris’s ability to draw out their stories is so refined, that at times we feel we are interviewing them ourselves; in those moments we can actually forget we are watching a film.
But we’re not allowed to forget for long; Morris constantly reminds us that, though he’s never seen, we are always in the company of a brilliant moviemaker. Showy as he is, he avoids the flashy but formulaic devices so abundant in non-fiction films – the camera never zooms in suddenly to signpost that something incredibly important is about to be said, and there are no unnecessarily arresting jump cuts to make sure we’re still paying attention. Instead, Morris ensures that everything in his film – whether it’s a stylised reconstruction of the crime; a burst of Philip Glass’s distinctive score; or a plain old interview with a policeman – provides insight either into the murder of Robert Wood, or those offering their opinions about it.
Some documentaries, rather than feeling like finished works, can seem like rough cuts of films to be crafted later on – but I would I never noticed that had I not watched Morris’s movies. Furthering the comparison with the Capote of In Cold Blood, Morris is the filmmaking equivalent of a tireless prose stylist who sifts a mass of information and condenses it into a taut and carefully honed essay. This film is only around an hour and forty minutes long, and the case it details is complex and contradictory, but its content is constructed so efficiently, and paced so precisely, that we never feel either overwhelmed by, or deprived of, information.
We are even allowed time to develop emotional reactions to the key characters, so that when we are confronted with the last scene – in which we hear the real murderer dispassionately confess both his crime and his reason for incriminating Adams – we are devastated. The final shot, which tells us that Randall Adams is ‘serving a life sentence in Eastham Unit, Lovelady, Texas’, would be unbearable if we were watching without the knowledge that this film eventually freed him.
An entire academic career could be devoted to tracing the impact of The Thin Blue Line; if you’ve ever watched CSI, Crimewatch or The Sopranos, or practically any documentary or crime film made after 1988, you’ve seen this movie’s influence. Now see the movie itself.