There are many great documentaries in the world but few could claim the importance of Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. It’s not simply because it is a singular or brilliant example in the field, although the use of re-enactment and dramatic techniques demonstrated here has become more and more commonplace and accepted as tools of the trade, but rather because Morris’ film genuinely and directly changed things regarding its subject. While phrases like ‘raise awareness’ and ‘challenge’ are thrown around in documentary film all the time, this film, in succeeding to get a man released from prison, seems to cheapen those terms as used in relation to most other examples in the field. The story told here, through interviews, reconstructions and a subdued but ominous Philip Glass score, is of Randall Adams’ imprisonment for the murder of Dallas County police officer Robert W. Wood in 1976.
Adams was new in the area and one night, running out of gas, took a lift from a young stranger. That stranger happened to be sixteen-year-old David Harris. They ended up spending most of the day together, getting food and going to the movies, before finally heading their separate ways. Adams claim is that he went back to his motel room for the night, but following his arrest, with a testimony from Harris, he instead faced the charge that he shot and murdered a police officer during a routine traffic stop. So begins the long process which originally ended with Adams being convicted with the death penalty.
Further investigations revealed ‘problems’ (to put it mildly) with the case which led to the death sentence being commuted to life imprisonment. As one lawyer in the film notes, the commuting of the sentence seemed more a result of an unwillingness to fully re-open the case than any real movement towards justice. So the film goes, building a portrait of a frustrated police department, a rookie cop who didn’t do her job correctly and an understandable hunger on the precinct’s part to find and convict whoever killed one of their own. Unfortunately the hunger with which the department sought justice meant that the very integrity upon which their jobs are supposedly based got crushed in the fray. If you couple that with a dose of bad luck it would seem that Randall Adams was unfortunately destined to have a very bad time.
The film found its genesis as Morris investigated Dr. James Grigson, known among many of his peers as Dr. Death. Grigson was a psychiatrist whose ‘expert opinion’ was frequently sought to determine if offenders posed a continued threat to society. This determination often made the difference between a life sentence and a successful death penalty conviction and Grigson had a record for proclaiming that most every single prisoner he ever examined was a clear and continuing danger should they ever be released. It was while investigating this man that Morris heard of Adams’ case as he numbered among those whose death sentence was secured through Grigson’s recommendation. As appalling as the possibilities of Grigson’s case were, Morris realised that here he had a much more immediate cause to champion.
Curiously The Thin Blue Line was rejected by the Academy for a ‘Best Documentary Film’ nomination as they claimed the re-enactments and so forth rendered it a fictional film. It seems almost absurd but the truth of the matter is that Morris’ extensive use of re-enactment, though nowadays often standard practice, was considered something of a no-no back in the 1980s. Marketing even classified the film as ‘fictional,’ no doubt also a result of marketers wanting to cover their behinds given the touchy nature of the subject. As for the Academy I suppose some sympathy could be extended to them since it’s possible they were just trying to prevent another mistake like their earlier awarding of ‘Best Documentary’ to Peter Watkins for his stupendous The War Game. Of course Watkins’ film was almost entirely scripted and fictional, although based on projected fact, but apparently the Academy rules didn’t mind that back in the late sixties. Amending their criteria later on they managed to disqualify a legitimate contender with Morris’ film.
It’s hard not to wonder if the very hot topic nature of the film, its immediacy and seriousness, might have also helped deaden any serious critical backing for the film. It’s difficult to imagine but when this film was made Adams was still languishing in prison. This documentary genuinely proposed a case rather than working with definite outcomes. It’s a ballsy move but, then again, Morris clearly had his research all mapped out. It seems only fitting that when he found it difficult to raise funds for further ventures, despite the success of his earlier documentaries, Morris took a job as a private investigator in New York for six years. This undoubtedly shapes the film which is not a recollection or summarising of events building to an already achieved consensus but rather an ongoing investigation. As Morris’ knowledge expands so too does ours as he seeks out as many people as he can who were involved in the case and let’s them say their piece. Choosing to avoid any narration and to instead let those involved speak for themselves we’re treated to the police officers and witnesses accounts along with the lawyers who worked for and against the defendant. We also have Randall Adams himself talking to the camera and, perhaps most saddening, Daniel Harris also features.
Harris, as the film maps out, was undoubtedly the man who murdered that police officer and his own life seems as horrendous a waste as the murder of that officer. Moving in and out of prisons all his life it was politics that made the police initially dismiss him as the murderer in the original case; his age making him ineligible for the death penalty while Adams, at twenty-eight, was perfectly ripe. Though speaking in a bright and intelligent manner Harris, in his prison overalls and handcuffs, can only recount all the crimes he committed which included not only this murder but that of another man too. It was that second murder that landed Harris in prison and lead to his execution by lethal injection in 2004. The weight of the viewpoints and the matter of fact presentation of the various elements, coupled with various recreations of the murder based on different testimonies (curiously Harris’ testimony, presumed to be the truth, is never recounted), build a convincing case for Adams’ wrongful conviction and imprisonment and it proved impossible for the authorities to ignore.
While plenty of documentaries can talk about government wrongdoings after they’ve been made public, precious few can make the claim that they collected new evidence, built a case and then outed an instance of wrongdoing and forced the government to respond. The Thin Blue Line is such a film and in that sense it is a slice of history as much as it is a document in the field of factual filmmaking. In that sense Morris is closer here to the role of a journalist than to that of a typical documentary maker. It’s quite a role but there’s no doubt he more than rose to the challenge.