On Thanksgiving weekend, 1976, policeman Robert W Wood pulled over a car for driving at night with no headlights on in Dallas, Texas. The car was stolen, which Wood had no knowledge of, and sadly he was shot and killed, with the car peeling away as Wood’s partner, one of the first female officers in Dallas, fired shots after it. The police investigation led to 16-year-old David Ray Harris, who had reportedly stolen the car from his neighbour and later bragged to his friends about committing the crime, but he pointed the finger at 28-year-old Randall Adams, a man new in town planning to start a new job, whom Harris had given a ride to and spent the day with.
This film was nominated for me to watch by Jess Manzo of French Toast Sunday. She is a fan of documentaries whereas, as you’ll know if you’ve read by recent mini-review on 2015’s Amy, I am not. I almost always find them very dull and difficult to focus on, feeling more like I should be taking notes for an ensuing exam on the topic rather than drinking in what is being presented to me. However, I’ve mentioned in a recent post how well I got on with last year’s podcast series Serial, and The Thin Blue Line is essentially Serial: The Movie.
They take a similar approach in both mediums of digging into many aspects of a case seemingly cut-and-dried many years earlier, in which supposedly the wrong man was convicted in each case, but with the benefit of hindsight and a look at the bigger picture on display it’s very probably that a miscarriage of justice occurred. And it’s fascinating. Witnessing the police officers involved, the defence attorneys, judge, witnesses and suspects all re-living the case and evidence is really interesting, although there’s a considerable bias on display from film-maker Errol Morris, who quite evidently has his own agenda and belief as to who really is behind the crime, and wants it to be understood by everyone. That’s fine, and there probably isn’t a completely unbiased documentary in existence, it just felt a little stronger here than maybe I was expecting.
The Thin Blue Line uses a combination of talking heads from the people involved in the case and dramatic reconstructions of different takes on the events, my favourite of which was the slow motion cup of milkshake flung from the car by Wood’s partner upon hearing the shots. It felt like a very odd image to show, but it worked. There’s a heck of a tense score here too from Philip Glass. I think the use of reconstructions helped to keep my interest by visually showing what the talking heads were saying, although it didn’t highlight how different some of the recollections were. Speaking of the talking heads, the bias I mentioned earlier clearly worked on me as I instantly hated a couple of the witnesses purely for disagreeing with what I’d heard before that point. The couple in question – Emily and R. L. Miller – just seemed detestable from the off, and the more I learned about them the more adamant I was that maybe these two killed Wood. There’s nothing to support it, no possible way that could have happened, but they just seemed so horrible that that’s how I wanted the film to end up. That would have been glorious.
There are a few significant holes in the film though. Little emphasis is placed on motive, although I suppose it could be paranoia about the car being stolen, but even then it’s an extreme jump to shoot-to-kill. Also, and I’m assuming this was a path attempted to tread down which alas never came to fruition, but the attorney for the prosecution, who is described as a big-shot smooth-talking professional by the name of Doug Mulder, is nowhere to be seen. He was known for being very proud of his flawless victory record, and didn’t care whether the man he was condemning was guilty or not, as long as he got a win. His perspective could have been a very interesting addition to what was an already gripping insight.
Regardless of whether this is truly a film that must be seen by everyone (and I’d happily argue that it should be) it at least is something that had to be made, due to the aftermath of the film’s release, which without going into potentially spoiler-filled details has rectified some serious past mistakes. For that I’m glad it exists. I’ve always had a lot of faith in the justice system to come around to the correct result but, seeing some of the underhand and obscene actions portrayed here I guess not everything is as certain as I’d always hoped.
Choose Film 8/10