We can thank Errol Morris for a couple of things in his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. First, he successfully exposed some serious flaws in a criminal case which resulted in the death sentence of Randall Adams in Dallas in 1976. His work helped correct this egregious wrong and freed an innocent man from life in prison. Second, we can thank the filmmaker for the proliferation of crime reenactments used ad nauseam by true crime television shows. You gain some, you lose some.
Randall Adams ran out of gas one day and hitched a ride with David Harris. As Adams pointed out, he’s not sure what would’ve happened had he not ran out of gas. What if David Harris wasn’t around? What if Adams refused the ride? His life may have been a lot different as it wasn’t long before Adams found himself in a police station being questioned for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. The officer had been shot numerous times after a routine traffic stop and Adams was said to be the shooter. The real shooter was actually the teenager, David Harris, but the police department and the DA’s office put together a case which pinned the blame on Adams. Harris, being the stand out guy he proved to be, had no problem blaming Adams. After all, Harris was previously bragging about killing a cop, only to take back those statements once the police caught up with him.
Morris’ filmmaking is groundbreaking in a number of ways. First, he reconstructs the events based on testimonies we see on screen. The accompanied reenactments are commonplace today but back then it was controversial. Documentaries can’t do that. They can only show what is captured; at least that was the thinking at the time until Morris punched critics and viewers in the gut by not only using reenactments but using them extensively throughout the 100 minute film. The interviews are shot straight on, with most subjects sitting dead center in the screen and staring down the camera, which was unheard of at the time and still not considered a best practice for interviews. Finally, the soundtrack by Phillip Glass is stylish, unlike those typically used previously for documentaries; especially those dealing with such serious matters.
The interviews are engaging enough but don’t pickup until some of the questionable witnesses make an appearance. Laughter ensues as one woman says she’s always witnessing killings and has a keen eye for such things. Her husband is almost as odd. Turns out the two have a shaky track record for telling the truth. At least one other witness comes on and we discover he’s confident he can identify Adams as the killer but then later learn that he couldn’t see much of anything and was trying to cover up his passenger, a girlfriend his wife wouldn’t be happy to hear about.
With no shortage of reenactments and non-stop interviews, keeping track of all the details becomes a little harrowing. Errol Morris will never be accused of not paying enough attention to detail. This does does not always make for great storytelling though. By the time the film ends it feels as though you’ve consumed enough information to personally prosecute the case against Harris and defend Adams.
The Thin Blue Line will likely be remembered as much for its groundbreaking approach to documentary film making as it will for helping free an innocent man from life in prison. Watching it nearly 25 years since its release makes you appreciate how much of an impact this film has had on documentaries since – quite an achievement.