“Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”
Wrongful conviction has always been a fascinating topic for me. If you’ve got injustice in the system, even if it’s just reasonable doubt, I’m there. There seems to be a lot of public interest behind the topic as well, with series like Making a Murderer, The People vs. OJ Simpson, or the Serial podcast, it’s nice to see a widespread interest in the flaws of the criminal justice system, and it hopefully shapes the judicial system into a fairer institution moving into the future. If you want to trace this phenomenon back somewhere, The Thin Blue Line might be a good place to start.
Typically classified a documentary (though director Errol Morris resisted the label), the movie tells the story of Randall Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to death in 1976 for a Texas cop killing. The film is primarily composed of interviews with Adams and other key figures surrounding the murder, with the film strongly implying Adam’s innocence due to unreliability of witnesses and other circumstantial evidence that never found its way into trial. The success of the film actually resulted in an overturning of Adam’s case and his release by Dallas County in 1989.
Structurally, The Thin Blue Line plays a lot like the shows I mentioned above. Revisiting the past can be tricky, and all you have in retrospect is interviews and documents. Fortunately, Morris demonstrates strong technical skill and keeps his audience interested with what he has. He uses these interviews to stage and film recreations of the actual murder according to different witness accounts, a technique that true life crime shows have adopted over the last few decades as well. While there is a clear bias on the part of the filmmaker, it’s also noteworthy that Morris allows the clearly unreliable witnesses to speak for themselves, letting the audience witness their shady testimonies in a “show don’t tell” approach to conveying their personalities.
Being a younger person, it’s sometimes hard to parse out where the innovation actually comes in from some of these movies. I’m only familiar with standards that have been around during my lifetime, and I think The Thin Blue Line was one of those realizations that a style I took for granted had to be invented. Watching 48 Hour Mystery and similar shows throughout my life, I never knew how really interesting some of these techniques are, and these programs owe a ton to this movie. If you’re like me and this is your first viewing of the film, The Thin Blue Line may seem familiar and even corny at times, but I feel like it demands some perspective to fully appreciate. Making a bunch of interviews into great cinema isn’t easy, but Morris delivers through careful technique and the movie just zips through its runtime with one engaging scene after another.
I’m not sure that I’ll ever return to The Thin Blue Line, but I feel indebted to it. Its legacy lives on in lots of the media I enjoy today, and as a standalone work, it holds up to Serial and the rest as a compelling case of miscarried justice in America. It feels like one of the most timeless films I’ve ever seen, and I really admire what it accomplished.
Films Left to Watch: 881