The murder was committed in Dallas County, 1976. It should have been a routine traffic stop — the target of the police officers simply did not have his headlights switched on — but suddenly, and unexpectedly, shots edged out the atmosphere before a word could be spoken. The slaughtered was Officer Robert Wood, the killer Randall Adams. Or so it was thought.
The Thin Blue Line, one of great documentary films, takes place twelve years after Adams’s original incarceration, making a case for him as a man on death row wrongfully locked up. What unfolds is a labyrinthine mystery of coincidences, police enforced hastiness, and misunderstandings, all knotting together ever so forcefully as Adams’s innocence becomes increasingly clear.
In the mid-1980s, during a slow period in his career, documentarian Errol Morris, perhaps the best in his class, briefly worked as a private investigator, an occupation whose effects come none too surprising in the scope of the film. It plays out not with a prevalent-from-the-start answer but with a whodunit air, as though Morris went into the situation knowing only of its briefest details and discovering the wider truths as it went along. That’s why The Thin Blue Line is so supremely spellbinding — it finds a cinematic thrill in true crime, portrayed through a gaze not thoroughly faux akin to A&E.
Originally, Morris planned to make a film about Dr. James Grigson, an infamous psychiatrist of the era who had the power to put a defendant on death row through a single, quick testimony. Always asked if the accused of the capital crime would commit a crime again if released, he almost always said yes, despite only profiling the said center of the case for just fifteen minutes. He is involved with The Thin Blue Line — he was the man who told the jury that Adams was a sociopath who would not hesitate to turn to a life of sin if freed — but Morris is all the wiser for detailing an offense, not a figure.
The film is also among the first documentaries to establish a now-widely copied style, which includes a mixture of head-on, one-take interviews with subjects of interest, tasteful reenactments, and an unsettling score (here by Philip Glass). The interviews offered provide a thorough, wide range including the law enforcement officials convinced of Adams’s guilt, the skeptics without the power needed to make for a successful speak-up, and, most importantly, David Ray Harris, a ne’er-do-well whose brief connection with Adams was enough to lock him up — and potentially take the actual blame off of himself.
Enthralling, stylish, and, above all, a masterpiece of the documentary form, The Thin Blue Line makes for such a convincing argument that it caused officials to reinvestigate Adams’s case and, ultimately, release him a year after the film’s premiere. After viewing Morris’s work here, you won’t be much nonplussed — it’s rare to have a film be entertaining and life-changing for those involved. A staple. A