1001 Films: The Thin Blue Line (1988)

“Were you surprised they believed you?”

It’s difficult to talk about this movie without first discussing its historical context. I didn’t watch this movie because I love Errol Morris’ films, but rather because of the film’s historical context; which is that it is THE documentary that freed a man from prison. I can’t say whether this is the only film, or even the first film, to accomplish this, but that fact alone immediately puts a weight on the shoulders of this movie that I doubt it can ever truly lift up looking back in time.

I’m a massive fan of documentary filmmaking. Over the last few years I’ve found a small list of films that I consider to be my favourites (Senna, Exit Through the Gift Shop & Man on Wire), but I’ve spent very little time going back into the catalogue of classic documentaries, for one reason or another. So when I first learned of this film I was intrigued. The idea of a filmmaker who’s desire to solve this mystery while documenting his findings and then actually enacting a change in the world fascinated me. So many documentaries exist with the sole purpose to put a way of thinking or highlight a certain aspect of life and then leave what the filmmaker believes needs to be done up to us, the audience.

So when a film doesn’t particularly need me to champion it’s cause but rather exists as evidence that it already accomplished its goal of righting an injustice does that make it a slightly weaker documentary? I’m not quite sure, but I know that while the historical significance of the film  weighs heavily I don’t believe that I would hold this film in as high a regard as I do my favourite documentaries (as listed before).

This documentary, I think, is the best personification of what I imagine a great court room closing remarks is like. With the repeated use of the reimagining of the night that Robert W. Wood was murdered coming off as a prosecutor trying to remind the jury over and over what this case is all about. It’s about the fact that a police officer isn’t with us anymore because some guy in the world didn’t feel like finding out why he pulled him over on this evening. Then the film reminds us that this fact doesn’t necessarily mean that that guy was Randall Adams, and goes to prove that it couldn’t have been and how the case presented against Adams was wrong in so many ways.

Earlier this year I saw Werner Herzog’s film Into the Abyss: another documentary which takes us into the prison to talk to inmates on death row. Unlike this movie, where we’re searching for the evidence to prove an innocent man, Into the Abyss discusses the morality of the death penalty and the mental state of someone conscious of his imminent unnatural death. Both films share a sense of finality to it where these men (whether guilty or innocent) seem to have any sense of hope for their future. While I see Randall Adams as a man who knows himself to be innocent, I don’t think he knows that he’s going to be exonerated for his alleged crime via this movie. I even wonder if Errol Morris even knew he was going to find so much information that he would be able to affect a man’s life so much, but that makes the idea of this film so much more profound in my view.

I guess the story of this film, in a weird way, highlights what I like so much about the format itself. When the format manages to be at its best for me, it always seems as if the filmmaker is discovering the story of the film he’s making as it’s happening on screen. While I do know a fair share of planning and somewhat scripting goes into documentary filmmaking I like the guise that the genre gives the movie. It feels real to me every time.

Rating: 7.5/10

  • http://Www.johnuxwriter.com/ John Mulvihill

    Both Morris and Herzog would be horrified at the prospect of using their craft to “champion a cause.” Rather, every film they make should be considered an exploration of that alien planet: the human condition.

    Their individual films come at the subject from different perspectives. M and H’s take on murder and its consequences in the American legal system bring us nose to nose with both the perpetrators — has the banality of evil ever been more apparent? — and their victims, the people who must go on after the murderer and the murdered have had their day.

    As we get to know all involved in this or any other documentary by these directors, our capacity to take life in has its parameters pushed outward. That is the justification for any movie genre, for any art. It should be the touchstone for criticism.

    Ive read enough of your blogs to argue that your criticism skips over the surface of films. Here, for example, you are distracted by a red herring: Was the director trying to influence the justice system? (And by the way, the answer is no.) You so often overlook the obvious and miss the essence. I take no pleasure in recommending you follow a career other than film criticism. I say that because i don’t want you to be banging your head against a wall ten years from now. If it’s any consolation, that form of journalism has become as big a whore as most of the traditional professions.

  • http://www.gmanreviews.com Andrew Robinson

    What is a film other than a point disguised in narrative via characters and effects? Every film has a purpose, a point that it wants to deliver to an audience… whether it’s affirmation to someone’s ideals or challenging them.

    Both Herzog and Morris do love to roam around in their worlds of discovery (from Tabloid, to Cave of Forgotten Dreams and further), and take us with them. However they add a lot of perspective in their journeys which is where they do their championing (for lack of a better word).

    I don’t argue that I am the greatest understander of film, or even the best at expressing what I do understand. I am not a film critic. There have been rare occasions where I’ve been able to speak my two cents about film on larger platforms and have been very grateful, as well as very receptive to notes on how to be a better writer. I apologize if you felt that I was passing myself off as a source of merit. I am merely a voice just enjoying discussing what I see. I am happy to talk with you about this in further detail so I can understand your point of view via email (andrew.robinson@gmanreviews.com).