#240) The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Directed & Written by Errol Morris
Class of 2001
The Plot: In November 1976, Dallas police officer Robert Wood was shot and killed while pulling over a car for having its headlights off. Officer Teresa Turko did not see the assailant before they drove off, but an investigation led to 16-year-old David Ray Harris, who said he was a passenger in the car when the driver, 28-year-old Randall Adams, committed the crime. Adams was arrested and the trial produced several surprise eyewitnesses who testified that they saw Adams shoot the officer. Adams was given the death sentence, eventually commuted to a life sentence in 1980. Case closed, right? Errol Morris disagrees, and interviews many of the key players years later to see if their stories hold up. Through innovative reenactments and a great Philip Glass score, Morris shows the crime from several points of view, but definitely tips the scales of justice in favor of Adams’ innocence and Harris as the culprit.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives an overview, highlights the film’s effect on the actual case, and praises Philip Glass’ score.
But Does It Really?: “The Thin Blue Line” is a game changer in the world of documentaries. Before this, documentaries were either talking heads or cinema vérité, but Morris broke the mold with a movie that pushes what non-fiction on film can be. It helps that the real case is endlessly fascinating (and you should definitely read into it), and Morris showcases all perspectives in a gripping, fascinating experience. The film’s true legacy is its definitive proof that movies can change the world. (See “Legacy” for the film’s main impact).
Everybody Gets One: This is Errol Morris’ only film on the NFR, though I suspect “The Fog of War” will make it eventually. Morris’ career as a filmmaker started on a bet with Werner Herzog, who said he would eat his shoe if Morris ever made his proposed film about a pet cemetery. The movie was “Gates of Heaven” and Herzog held up his end of the deal.
Wow, That’s Dated: The final scene hinges on footage of a tape recorder.
Title Track: Prosecutor Doug Mulder used the phrase in his closing argument to remind the jurors that the police are “the thin blue line” between order and anarchy.
Seriously, Oscars?: “The Thin Blue Line” was famously not nominated for Best Documentary, leading to public outcry from the likes of Michael Apted and Roger Ebert. The exclusion is partially Morris’ fault: he didn’t want the film labeled a documentary, opting for the “nonfiction” moniker instead, a term the Academy used in their decision to consider “Thin Blue Line” ineligible for Best Documentary. There were also reports of Academy members turning the film off midway through screenings, suggesting a strong dislike of the film within the Documentary branch. If only screeners had existed back then.
- “The Thin Blue Line” was distributed by Miramax, then co-owned by Harvey Weinstein. That’s right, Harvey Weinstein helped distribute a movie about a man who gets away with a crime and is then charged for a similar crime years later. Payback’s a bitch.
- Side Note: I had a film professor who went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison at the same time as Errol Morris. Lots of namedropping. Lots of namedropping.
- “The Thin Blue Line” started off as a completely different film about Dr. James Grigson. Nicknamed “Doctor Death”, Grigson’s diagnosis of Texas criminals led to over 100 death sentences (Texas will only approve the death sentence if a doctor can convince the jury the defendant would cause more harm if acquitted). While interviewing Randall Adams, Morris wasn’t convinced that Adams was the sociopath Grigson made him out to be, and investigated his case further. Grigson gets a brief mention in the final film.
- This dramatic reenactment sponsored by Burger King! Have It Your Way!
- They can get the footage from “The Student Body” and “The Swinging Cheerleaders” with no problem, but the pivotal “Carol Burnett Show” footage is nowhere to be seen. I can’t even find a clip on YouTube. Burnett will not let you watch her tribute to Ray Charles without ponying up.
- Edith James is my favorite person in this whole thing. It helps that she’s the most human of the bunch, and that she is only tangentially connected to all of this.
- There are a lot of times where different interviewees try to discredit Officer Teresa Turko, suggesting she didn’t follow protocol at the scene of the crime. I hesitate to ask this, but would they be this harsh if she was a man?
- I’ll be honest: I didn’t take a lot of notes for this one. I found myself caught up in the crime as well as the film (which is impressive considering I’ve seen this film before). There’s so much to keep track of I couldn’t risk writing a lot down for fear of missing something (which, again, is a high compliment for a movie I’ve already seen).
- Some films influence pop culture, some films are technological breakthroughs, but some films change lives. Due to the evidence that appears in the film, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Adams’ prison sentence. Adams received a retrial, and was released from prison in 1989. Because it was a dismissal and not a pardon, Adams did not receive any restitution for his false imprisonment. Following a suit against Morris to reclaim the rights to his life story, Adams returned to obscurity, to the point where his death wasn’t reported by the press until eight months after the fact.
- David Ray Harris was eventually tried and executed for the 1985 murder that gets mentioned near the end of the film. He was never tried for the murder of Officer Wood.
- Errol Morris continues cranking out documentaries (and the occasional book) every few years. He did eventually make a movie called “Mr. Death”, but the subject was electrocution technician Fred A. Leuchter, rather than Dr. James Grigson.
- Dramatic reenactments started popping up in documentaries following this film. The trope was beaten to death by a little show called “Scandalmakers”. “Perhaps an attic shall I seek.”
- Once again, “Documentary Now!” absolutely nails the film they’re lampooning with “The Eye Doesn’t Lie”.