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Grade: A-Thin Blue Line, The (1988)

Director: Errol Morris

Stars: Randall Adams, David Harris (III)

Release Company: MGM

MPAA Rating: PG

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Morris: The Thin Blue Line


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Errol Morris creates some of the most interesting documentaries that I've ever seen. After seeing Mr. Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred Lechter about the engineer who specializes in designing humane electric chairs, I decided to check out Morris' definitive documentary, The Thin Blue Line.

I was not disappointed!

In keeping with his favored themes of death and weirdness, Morris began the project as a study of Dr. Death, a psychiatrist who meets with prisoners for 15 minutes and pronounces each one as a dangerous menace to society when he testifies as an expert witness. Dr. Death becomes a small footnote, to the documentary's ground breaking detective work, however.

The Thin Blue Line sent shivers through my spine and left my mouth agape at the incompetence and corruption of the criminal justice system. Even though it focuses on a specific case in Dallas County, Texas, the same pattern exists elsewhere. Of course, I grew up in the sixties and during the Nixon years, so residual paranoia may always exist.

The documentary begins as Randall Adams tells about the night he ran out of gas and got picked up by young David Harris. They go to a drive-in movie called The Swinging Cheerleaders, and then we are led through a series of interviews, images, and reenactments because Harris' story directly contradicts Adams' story. Like a character in a Hitchcock movie, Adams became embroiled in a plot that was beyond his control—in his words, "It's as if I was meant to be here. It all started the day I ran away from home."

It's a fact that police officer Robert Wood was gunned down in 1976 when he approached a blue Mercury Comet on the highway. We also know that Randall Adams is serving a life sentence for the murder, and that David Harris is on death row for another murder that he committed. Morris' film convincingly establishes evidence that the Texas criminal justice system has falsely accused the wrong man—confirmed with a chilling 1986 audio recording of David Harris to end the film.

No straightforward documentary, Morris skillfully reveals layers lyrically unlike any 60 Minutes feature story. For one thing, the haunting Phillip Glass score skillfully weaves a rhythmic pattern during the segments and ties them together. The score is appropriately repetitious just as the same re-enactment is interplayed numerous times, each time from a slightly different angle.

An interesting mix of characters are introduced, from the eyewitness “scum” who testify for money to the lawyer who resigned his practice in disgust after the verdict was announced. We also learn about a successful scumbag prosecutor who believes that it “takes a great lawyer to convict an innocent man."

I was jolted when I heard that Dr. Death, the psychiatrist famous for declaring all interviewees as sociopaths bent on future killing sprees, actually asked Adams the meaning of the phrase "a rolling stone gathers no moss." Wait a minute, I heard that same query in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest! It must be one of those lazy textbook standards that generic psychiatrists use. All the more disturbing to realize that Texas courts accept this scam artist as an expert.

Morris' landmark film clearly demonstrates that the justice system has failed in this case, and reminds us that a Hitchcockian horror scenario could await anyone who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The judge cites the title of the documentary, and explains that the thin blue line refers to how the police "separates the public from anarchy."

Errol Morris' slice of anarchy documented in The Thin Blue Line sets a new standard. If you are serious about film or are interested in social issues, this documentary is essential viewing.
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