The Thin Blue Line

Dir: Errol Morris, 1988. Documentary.
The Thin Blue Line

Two men are in prison for the rest of their lives. One is Randall Dale Adams, an average man who appears rational, patient, and has had no distinct trouble with the law. The other is David Ray Harris, a young and destructive delinquent on death row after many years of trouble with the law. On November 28, 1976 their paths crossed in an act of gratitude and friendlessness when Adam had car trouble and the then 16-year-old Harris offered him a ride. By morning, a police officer would be shot dead and the trial to decipher which of them is guilty is enough to plot an entire trilogy of thrillers.

Documentaries are a strange breed of cinema, outlined by rules and guidelines set forth in order to produce "cinéma-vérité." This quest to give the audience "truth" leaves absolutely no room for bias, or theatrics for that matter. That is of course until Errol Morris came through with The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that successfully argues the innocence of a man and eventually leads to his release. After all, once you put a camera up to any situation, you are in some ways distorting truth. Morris simply adds reenactments and colorful visuals to the frame in order to give an appropriate feel to a film documenting a crime and the lousy justice department that attempts to solve it.

Randall Dale Adams fell onto a piece of bad luck when his car stalled. A complete stranger then offers him a ride and some entertainment by bragging about his past and even taking Adams to see a movie. While driving, the two were pulled over by an officer, and here is where the story gets messy. Adams claims that Harris shot the officer once he approached the car and then sped away. Harris claims that he drove Adams home (and he had a witness to his return to a motel) and that Adams is the guilty man. Several witnesses, including the officer’s partner who was said to have been lingering in the patrol car slurping a chocolate shake, could not produce a clear image of the men in the car prior to its speeding away. Due to the magnitude of the case, officials were more than eager to solve it and send someone to death row. Harris, only sixteen at the time, was not eligible for this sentence. Many argued that this, and the lack of evidence against either man, made Adams the prime suspect. Harris was later sent to death-row for the fatal killing of someone else years later. Morris interviews both men in prison, along with everyone else involved, including officers and people who knew Harris and Adams.

The great thing about this documentary is its form. It has what should be expected of such a film in its approach to its subjects and their environments, but Morris adds a superb use of color and reenactments, similar to a televised criminal drama, that sometimes border on a strange irony, if not hilarity. The image of a swinging clock in between testimonies is a bold reminder of the many years a man has served for a crime he might not have committed. This urgency to discover the truth is so effective that the case was re-opened, eventually leading to Harris, in a disturbing tape recording in which he mocked the entire ordeal, practically admitting Adam’s innocence after twelve years.

Morris was also no amateur to the power of good editing in a film. Sharp contrasts are implanted in both statements from the two men and the witnesses involved in the case. The soundtrack only further adds to the tension and also plays well to the theme. Adams, as well as a great deal of others, was astounded and frightened by the effect of the film. How thin is the line between justice and truth? What can be said about the justice system if the film of one man, working with the same materials the police had, can easily prove another man’s innocence? Does it have to do with the way it is presented? We, as people, are so used to seeing criminal cases in the form of shows like America’s Most Wanted that, when it is presented in this way, the truth shines through brighter than ever. It’s a clever and interesting topic to think on and, thankfully with the right vision, we can begin to look at crime and the justice system differently, not just focus on who is guilty or innocent. Adams might argue the same. He now works as an activist against the death penalty.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 8, 2010 4:55pm
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