Errol Morris’ groundbreaking 1988 documentary film is a masterclass in that holy grail of true crime sub-genres, the ‘miscarriage of justice’. But the deftness of Morris’ art comes not through sensational revelations, but through a forensic presentation of evidence that gets the audience to do the work of constructing what actually happened.
Despite the true crime industrial complex and its endless ability to unearth cold cases and wrongful convictions, there are few films quite like The Thin Blue Line. Morris’s documentary re-investigates the 1976 murder of Dallas police officer, Robert Wood, as he pulls over a stolen car on the highway. Much of the evidence pointed towards the then sixteen-year-old David Harris. However, despite having no prior convictions, the more conveniently older Randall Adams was convicted and sentenced to death. Although his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, Randall maintained his innocence until Morris discovered the case and began his own documentary investigation.
With a pre-filmmaking occupation as a private detective, Morris’ quest for truth has inspired his ongoing exploration of the human condition through their decisions, actions and obsessions. His other documentary subjects range from idiosyncratic pet owners (Gates of Heaven) and inventors (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control) to darker subjects such as war criminals (The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure) and holocaust deniers (Mr Death). Using his hallmark approach to the interview, which involves the participants staring down the barrel of the camera, The Thin Blue Line plays out through a series of interrogations, witness statements, hypotheses and presentations of evidence. Intercut with the testimonies are the stylised recreations of the crime scene; the flashing red lights of the police car; the accumulating cigarette butts in the interrogation room ashtray; and the iconic flying milkshake container that splatters on the road at the time of death – all underscored by the Phillip Glass soundtrack. While these techniques don’t stand out as particularly unusual these days, The Thin Blue Line was seminal with some of Morris’ techniques becoming mainstays of both television true crime and feature documentaries.
Documentary theorist Charles Musser writes that The Thin Blue Line makes two significant achievements. The first is that it ushers in “a serious critique of the established aesthetic of documentary that freed filmmakers to choose from a far richer array of representational methods” (2015). Morris is known to prefer working with fiction-film cinematographers, using aesthetic devices more common to that mode of production with the carefully art-directed and well-lit interviews and reconstructions. These techniques ask the audience to critically question what a truth might look like, not only in documentary, but more broadly through the mediated image. While the equation of truth with the hand-held verite approach to documentary filming, seen in more journalistic documentary, persists, Morris shows us this is not necessarily so.
Musser goes on to add that The Thin Blue Line is pivotal in “reestablishing the viability and even centrality of truth value to documentary in a way that impacted the public sphere and society at large” (2015). While documentary is often discussed in terms of its impact, Morris’s pursuit for truth had a significant and tangible effect on a man’s life. The film brought new evidence to light through Harris’ confession of the crime – heard as voice-over in the final scene of the film. Adams was subsequently released after serving eleven years.
While Adams was pardoned a few months after the film was made, sometimes documentary film’s impact on the criminal justice system is a slower burn. Taking a more conventional televisual approach, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (2006) instigated a campaign that spanned eighteen years and three films. Upon hearing of the shocking child murders and arrest of the West Memphis three – a group of disaffected teenagers accused of killing three eight-year-old boys – Berliner and Sinofsky began filming in order to understand why teenagers kill. However, they soon realised that the prosecutor’s case didn’t quite add up and much of the speculation was based on the fact that the accused teenagers listened to heavy metal music and wore black – spurious evidence at best. In presenting the facts in this HBO television documentary, viewers and justice advocates were galvanised to take action.
While The Thin Blue Line helped catalyse a genre of non-fiction content, other true crime film, television and audio projects have similarly heralded shifting audience trends. The seemingly insatiable appetite for such productions can be seen in the popularity of one of Netflix’s earliest series, Making a Murderer (2014) and the podcast that catapulted podcasting into the mainstream, Serial (2015). Both of these ‘bingeable’ series concerned themselves with perceived miscarriages of justice and although both have clear sympathies for the incarcerated protagonists, neither have been successful in overturning the convictions. Both these examples are well crafted and compelling stories. But within the grip of the narrative, the dependence on the access to one particular perspective, and the drive to see what happens in the next episode, how much do they make us really question the evidence in a way that leads the viewer to decide what is the truth?
In December 2020, Morris acknowledged the impact of The Thin Blue Line on audiences’ perception of documentary’s role, tweeting an apology of sorts: “I'm sorry for "The Thin Blue Line." You solve a murder mystery and then people think that's all documentary should do.”
Morris is unwavering in his allegiance to truth. This is no small thing with news becoming at times indistinguishable from misinformation and propaganda, and the sophistication of deep fake technology threatens the face-value of the recorded image. What marks The Thin Blue Line as unique is its enduring lesson in evaluating this evidence through making the audience active participants and witnesses.
Kim Munro is a lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University and the Conference Programmer at the Australian International Documentary Conference. Her writing on documentary has appeared in academic journals and books as well as Metro Magazine and The Conversation.