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Film Review: The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line (1988; Directed by Errol Morris)

The American social justice documentary has become a staple of the form. A quick scan of recent Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees, public television, or Netflix reveals a plethora of documentary films concerning social problems in America, particular those that go unresolved through the country’s courts, prisons, and justice system in general. Indeed, there is no shortage of films that see American justice as a prima facie social problem in and of itself and seek to interrogate and challenge its imperatives of law and order.

These documentaries nearly all owe a considerable debt to Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, an inventive, complex, and incandescently outraged polemic against the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of an innocent man for a crime he did not commit. Utilizing interviews, archival material, and illustrative re-enactments (and a spectral score by Philip Glass), Morris made such a potent case for the innocence of Randall Dale Adams in the killing of a Dallas-area police officer that Adams’ conviction (and pending execution) was overturned about a year after the film’s release. But in addition to that achievement, Morris’ narrative and technical methods have influenced not only documentary film but pulpier, less political astute and ambitious work as well, namely the glut of true crime programs oozing across cable in the multi-channel universe.

Adams, a single, unattached drifter who had worked his way into Dallas in the fall of 1976, soon experienced Texas justice firsthand. He found himself being made a patsy for the murder of a cop that was almost certainly committed by a crime-ridden local small-town good ol’ boy named David Ray Harris, though he was never convicted of the crime (Harris was executed by the state in 2004 for another murder). Morris documents the stitch-up job inflicted on Adams in great detail that builds and deepens in corruption and indignation as it goes on. Police statements are conveniently altered; a false confession is obtained; unreliable but extremely eager eyewitnesses readily finger the suspect; an immunity deal is struck with Harris to point at Adams as well, although even cursory police work would have found Harris to be the more suspicious figure in the case.

Morris (a former private detective) began the project by focusing on Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist for hire who had testified in over a hundred death penalty cases and invariably aids the prosecution case by declaring the accused to be a psychopath who would undoubtedly kill again if set free (he trotted out the same line on Adams to aid in conviction). Morris ultimately found the Adams case in particular more interesting and changed his tack, but Dr. Grigson’s transparently obvious and deeply cynical testimony racket is emblematic of a system set up to manufacture death sentences. It’s also set up to choose and condemn a fall guy in the high-profile murder of a police officer, with closed ranks among the force, collusion between the police and the District Attorney, and self-serving deals with dangerous offenders in exchange for evidence and testimony that will convict another.

This system, so well exposed by Morris here, has not really gone away, only manipulated its form to be less immediately apparent. The Thin Blue Line‘s focus is an injustice perpetrated on a white man and not on a black man as many recent cases in the United States have prominently featured. It’s worth recalling the social context of the time, when a long-haired free spirit without fixed address like Adams was as much a target for the hegemonic establishment as someone who wasn’t white.

Morris doesn’t telegraph much of this context, though. His gaze is fixed on the details of the case and their intense discrepancy with the lofty ideals of the justice system. As a result, some of the deeper implications of the practices of authority that convicted Randall Dale Adams are not pinpointed with nearly the same level of dead-eyed accuracy. This only reduces the impact of The Thin Blue Line to a minor extent, but it is a noticeable oversight in an otherwise powerful film made with great skill and possessed with deep and persuasive conviction.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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