The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Directed by: Errol Morris
Written by: Errol Morris
Starring: Randall Adams, David Harris
It’s a rare thing for a film to be widely recognized as a game changer soon after its release, especially in a genre as wide and deep as the documentary film. Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line did just that by carefully chronicling the case of the killing of a Texas police officer. Morris presents testimony and evidence that would eventually directly lead to a man who was falsely accused and sentenced to death, to be exonerated from death row. It’s one of the few times in movie history where the film itself has such far-reaching effects that didn’t only change cinematic history, but the history of a living, breathing human being. When considering the idea of a documentary pantheon, The Thin Blue Line deserves to be front and center for everything it accomplished and changed for the medium.
The Thin Blue Line begins immediately with Randall Adams’ story of how he got to Dallas, Texas, and was almost immediately offered to start a new job. After an uneventful first day, Adams picks up a ride from 16-year old David Harris, who had just stolen a car and his father’s firearms. David and Randall spent the day together, saw a movie, and were later allegedly involved in the shooting of a Dallas police officer upon being pulled over. What follows the shooting is one of the prime examples of the failings of the United States justice system, as an innocent man is sentenced to death only because the perpetrator of the crime was deemed too young for the death penalty. Despite all evidence pointing to Harris as the shooter, Randall Adams is blamed for the crime so the state of Texas can make an example out of him.
The experience of watching The Thin Blue Line is unlike any other I’ve had while watching a documentary. Morris’ direction is very cinematic, employing the use of stylistic reenactment of the crime, set to music composed by the legendary Philip Glass. The reenactments are tasteful and delicately directed in order to give a proper idea of what went on that night. On top of the reenactments are a wide variety of talking head-style interview clips with Randall Adams, David Harris, as well as the police officers and prosecutors who worked to put the two men away. Morris lets every interviewee tell their stories with an unblinking, attentive eye. Everybody in The Thin Blue Line has a story and a reason for doing what they did, and Morris sees the inherent value in these points of view, as they tell the story of how such a miscarriage of justice could ever take place.
What I Liked:
- Despite being a documentary about a case where a man was wrongfully accused, Errol Morris’ camera does not look down or discriminate against those responsible. Instead he lets their actions and words speak for themselves.
- Philip Glass’ score is phenomenal and really helps to drive the film.
- The use of reenactments is brilliant, they’re shot in an atmospheric haze that really differs them from the talking head portions of the film.
- Does a great job of mapping out a timeline from the day of the crime, all the way through the obtainment of a confession and the subsequent trial. Morris doesn’t hold your hand, but the film flows so perfectly that he would never need to.
- Everybody is given equal respect and time to explain and justify their points of view, no matter how small their part in the case.
- The pacing is incredible, jumping from interview to interview, switching occasionally to reenactments or archival footage and photographs, and back to interviews. I’ve watched the film three times in preparation for this review, and not once have I grown tired of it.
- Errol Morris’ “less is more” style really works for the film. It’s not flashy at any points, but it gives the feeling of being a stylish documentary due to its narrow focus and use of reenactments.
What I Didn’t:
- This isn’t the fault of the film, but after multiple viewings it’s very clear that The Thin Blue Line laid the groundwork for the modern “true crime” documentary. I can think of a dozen documentaries in the last decade that have borrowed heavily from its style, yet none of them have ever managed to surpass Morris’ breakthrough film.
The Thin Blue Line is a masterpiece in documentary filmmaking. It invented the formula for one of the most popular subgenres of documentary, the true crime/investigative film. It’s been so influential to documentary filmmaking that it almost feels cliched at times, but it practically invented the style. Errol Morris’ eye for detail, knack for storytelling in all forms, and respect for the subjects at hand all make this a home run. There’s a reason why you’ll find The Thin Blue Line at the top of nearly all “best of” lists: It’s just that damn good. Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line gets our highest recommendation.