This past week, I had the chance to watch Errol Morris’s 1988 classic documentary The Thin Blue Line, not to be confused with Terrence Malick’s war epic The Thin Red Line. The name refers to the police, being the thin blue line separating society from anarchy and is a re-work from a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy.” The film is critically acclaimed; In 2008, Variety called the film “the most political work of cinema in the last 20 years,” the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry and it was named the #2 documentary to see before you die by Current TV, only behind Steve James’s 1994 timeless film Hoop Dreams.
The Thin Blue Line is a number of recent movies I’ve seen that transcends the label of documentary with the help of a very strong underlying narrative. The Thin Blue Line, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated and James Marsh’s Man On Wire are all documentaries that have the ability to make you forget that you are watching a documentary, with the latter two winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The Thin Blue Line chronicled the story of Randall Dale Adams, a Texas man sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
The story utilizes interviews, re-enactments and an interesting use of archival footage including newspaper clippings and courtroom portraits. Morris used re-enactments built carefully from witnesses’ statements at a time when they were still considered fresh and the film is often credited as the birth of modern crime-scene reenactments that are now commonplace in Cold Case Files and numerous other program on TruTV and the like.
In the interviews, Morris uses a revolutionary device called an interrotron as pictured, which is similar to a teleprompter but uses a two-way mirror to project each persons face. As such, instead of staring into a blank lens, the interviewee is looking directly at a human face, which allows for eye contact through the use of video screens. As mentioned prior, the story has a strong underlying narrative and comes to a head in a climactic final scene, which is a poignant case of accidental genius. During one of the subject’s chilling confession, Morris’s camera had malfunctioned so all he had at his disposal was the audio of the interview. Morris decided to use the audio in the film while the viewer is subjected to an extreme close-up of a tape recorder. Without a face to match the voice, you can’t help but truly listen to the words, making the effect all the more powerful.
While Morris tells the story from a number of perspectives, it is certainly clear that this isn’t an unbiased account of the events. Morris went in with an agenda and expertly edited the footage to frame a number of the characters in a negative light. The Thin Blue Line is a true testament to the power of documentary filmmaking as less than a year after the film’s release, Randall Adams case was reviewed and he was subsequently released from prison. The Thin Blue Line was a fabulous documentary, a different kind of murder mystery and is highly recommended.