DVD Review: The Thin Blue Line
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: July 27, 2005
Errol Morris's documentary "The Thin Blue Line" is the story of a crime -- the murder of policeman Robert Wood in 1976 -- and punishment -- the conviction of Randall Adams for that murder, and the questions surrounding the involvement of a teen-aged David Harris. There are interviews with detectives, attorneys, witnesses, and of course Wood and Adams. In that sense, it's easy to compare "The Thin Blue Line" with such television staples as "48 Hours" or "Dateline," or fictional counterparts such as "CSI" or "Law and Order." But Morris brings an elegaic artistry to this documentary that elevates it above such standard fare.
In November of 1976, Randall Adams ran out of gas on the road, and got a lift from runaway David Harris. That night, Officer Wood was shot and killed. Through interviews and reenactment, Morris teases out the events of that night. His efforts were so effective factually that, while Adams had been convicted for the shooting of Wood, his case was reopened and he was ultimately freed.
Morris does not use narration, but instead juxtaposition, placing interview against interview, using visual cues, and staging reenactments from different angles and with different events. The interviews are static, showing upper bodies only. The re-enactments often are tightly focused visually -- on a hand, on feet, on a torso. There are shots of a re-enactment of Adams's interrogation taken from outside a building, with views of the players tightly circumscribed by windows. While there are certainly practical reasons for using such tight focus, from an artistic point of view, it emphasizes the point that, at any given moment, we are only seeing part of the picture.
Beyond the mystery element, Morris is also creating a mood with his documentary. The score is by Philip Glass, and is haunting and repetitive, providing a dreamlike quality. The "thin blue line" of the title is a reference to a statement made in closing arguments of the trial, as reported by the trial judge, that the police are the thin blue line that separates the public from anarchy. However, there are other thin lines being explored -- for example, the thin line that separates a previous life from a new one. Adams reflects at one point, "I get up. I got to work on Saturday. You know, why did I meet this kid? I don't know. Why did I run out of gas at that time? I don't know. But it happened. It happened." Or the thin line of choice that leads to different outcomes. At the end of the movie, Harris tells Morris, "I've always thought if you could say why there's a reason Randall Adams is in jail, it might be because the fact that he didn't have no place for somebody to stay that helped him that night ... landed him where's he's at ... That might be the reason. That might be the only, total reason why he's where he's at today."
Morris is one of our most important documentarians, and is an Oscar winner for his most recent film, "Fog of War." "The Thin Blue Line" is well worth viewing, both on its own merits and as an early example of Morris's work.
"The Thin Blue Line" has recently been released
as part of the "Errol Morris Collection."
There is a disappointing lack of bonus features. At the very least, a follow-up interview discussing how the movie led to the real-life release of Adams would seem to be a natural item to include. A director's commentary would also have been fascinating.
The only real bonus feature on "The Thin Blue Line" is an episode from Morris's TV Show "First Person," which had aired on Bravo in 2000. "First Person" provided half-hour interviews with various individuals, and in this case the individual is Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychologist whose study had particularly included persons who were evil, such as serial killers, batterers, etc. As with "Thin Blue Line," the show focuses on Dr. Stone's words in interview. I found this episode less effective than the movie, however. There is a distinction between discussing the baser side of human nature and reveling in it, and I felt Morris leaned too far towards the reveling side. The show ends with a clever and witty twist, but the material presented would have worked better in a 15-minute segment.
Film Rating: A-.
Extra Material: B-.