Sometimes, when art is very, very good, art bleeds into real life and makes real life manifestly better. This is one of the highest callings of art.
#45: The Thin Blue Line
The one theme that resonated with students was the manifest unfairness and awfulness of the police officers depicted in the film. At one point, a suspect tells of being interrogated for twelve hours, during which time a police officer put a gun to his head and ordered him to sign a confession. The camera then cuts to an interview with the police officer; he says, “We had a nice conversation.” Students who are accustomed to being hassled by local law enforcement all sadly shook their heads in recognition.
Later that night, Dallas police officer Robert Wood is shot during a routine traffic stop. The police claim that Adams shot him. Adams claims that he is innocent. Harris claims that he witnessed the shooting and appears as the prosecution’s star witness. Which of several conflicting storylines is true? Who really shot Officer Wood?
Documentary fans were astounded in 1988 when The Thin Blue Line was not nominated for an Oscar. Back in that dark time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a strange and byzantine nominating process that assured that only documentaries about the Holocaust would win the award. The Thin Blue Line was not even considered for a nomination because it was marketed as a “nonfiction” film, not a documentary. Another thin blue line!
In 1994, controversy again surrounded the AMPAS process when neither Hoop Dreams nor Crumb garnered a nomination. Apparently, only Academy members attending special screenings of all eligible nominees were allowed to vote. To help these perceptive and altruistic individuals save time, the Academy conveniently supplied them with flashlights. Once the screening of an eligible film was underway, if enough voting members shone their flashlights on the screen, the screening came to an abrupt halt and the next screening began. The Pope was not invited to these special screenings (for which I have forgiven my transgressors) but rumor has it that the nominating screening of Hoop Dreams lasted less than twenty minutes. Of course, since those dark days, the Academy has completely revamped its rules and procedures for nominating documentaries. The new nominating process involves secret caves and magic wands.
Fortunately, this part of the story has a happy ending. Fifteen years after The Thin Blue Line, Morris finally won a much-deserved Best Documentary Oscar for another film: his astounding The Fog of War, in which former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara basically admits on camera that Vietnam was a big mistake.
Errol Morris’s documentary work has always gone this way. In films as outwardly different as Vernon, Florida; Gates of Heaven (Roger Ebert’s favorite film); Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control; The Fog of War; Standard Operating Procedure; and Tabloid, Morris spins a cinematic web that is both compelling and frustrating, inviting audience members to ferret out the elusive truths at the heart of these films.
MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE THIN BLUE LINE: The film successfully argues that Adams was innocent and that Harris committed the murder. Filmmaker Morris actually captured Harris confessing on audiotape. The film was responsible for Adams’s release from death row after twelve years of wrongful incarceration. I can think of no higher calling in art than to actually return a man to freedom.
The Thin Blue Line is a work of exacting reportage. It is not surprising to note that, before he became a documentary filmmaker, Errol Morris was a private detective. Here he digs into the case of his life—a case where even a discarded Burger King milkshake cup becomes an important clue. If you liked last December’s Making a Murderer on Netflix, you need to see the film that serves as progenitor for all modern true crime documentaries.
"In nomine Patrici, et Scorsese, qui mecum est Jai Beaie, Amen.”