Review: The Thin Blue Line

In 1976, a Dallas cop was murdered during a routine traffic stop. Eventually, 16 year-old David Harris was picked up after having bragged about the murder to his friends. Harris led police to Randall Adams, fingering him as the culprit and essentially ensuring his death sentence. This documentary covers events via testimony from Adams, who claims to have been framed (Adams and Harris shared a car ride together, but Adams claims they parted ways well before the murder), as well as interviews with witnesses, attorneys, police, and of course Harris. It is argued that because Harris was a minor, police and the judicial system targeted Adams because he was 28 and thus could be sentenced to death for the crime, which he was indeed found guilty of. Nonetheless, Morris (a former private detective) argues that Adams (who had never been in trouble with the law before) was less likely to have committed the crime than Harris, who was later picked up for another, unrelated murder. He sets about proving the case for Adams’ innocence in the course of the film. Meanwhile, the credibility of the witnesses proves increasingly questionable to say the least.

This 1988 documentary by Errol Morris (“Fog of War”) is considered by most to be a classic and very influential in the world of documentary filmmaking (Certainly Morris’ subjective style reminds one of Michael Moore and others). Coming to it very late, I must say I’m a whole lot less impressed. It’s an interesting (if confusing to newbies to the real-life case like me) and sometimes horrifying story of police incompetence, but I couldn’t help thinking whilst watching it on TV that indeed, it’s the kind of thing you could get on TV. But this was theatrically released and as I said, is considered a classic in the genre. I also felt that some of the interviewees gave off a vibe of unauthenticity, as though they were actors or perhaps re-enactors, rather than real documentary interviewees. It really bugged me at times.

Perhaps too much time has passed for me to truly ‘get’ this film (especially now that there are entire channels devoted to true crime documentaries), or perhaps it’s just an OK film. Either way, I’m not a huge fan of it as a film, but the story will still keep you engaged from start to finish (especially if you’re a true crime nut like I am).

Morris should also be commended for making an argument in Adams’ favour that you really can’t just call bias. I’m sorry, but by the end, it’s pretty freakin’ obvious who did what to whom. ‘Innocent Man’ tales are a dime a dozen, but it’s really shocking that a soft-spoken, seemingly average guy like Randall Adams (who died of a brain tumour in 2010, sadly) who is pretty obviously not guilty of the crime could get convicted whilst an almost assuredly 110% guilty David Harris (whose last words in this documentary are frighteningly pathetic) was right there under everybody’s nose. I mean, this is like the ultimate ‘Innocent Man’ tale. That doesn’t mean Adams was a great guy (Who the hell knows? It’s irrelevant here anyway) but still, this was a monumental stuff-up and the case was thankfully re-opened after this film was released. This is really what kept me watching, gobsmacked at how so many people could be so flagrantly stupid when a man’s life was at stake here. The nutbag witnesses and their clearly dubious testimony should’ve been enough of a red flag, you’d think.

The terrible Phillip Glass music score is distracting and monotonous, the kind of crap Glass did for films like “Koyaanisqatsi”, which just gave me nightmare flashbacks to my Cinema Studies days.

Interesting, but not especially memorable, at least not in 2012. I guess it deserves credit for starting the true crime/re-enactment documentary thing, but I expect more from a theatrically-released film than I found here.

Rating: B-


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