Published on March 28th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
The Thin Blue Line 
Summary: Errol Morris' investigative true crime documentary is a masterclass in film journalism and shows the absolute best this medium can be used for.
NR | 103 min.
Director: Errol Morris
Studio: Miramax Films
What factors decide whether a film succeeds or fails?
Every time I sit down to write about any movie, this is the question I try to answer, and it can be different for each situation. However, if your film frees an innocent man from a lifetime in prison — like director Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line — I’d say the question of success is moot.
This film focuses on the events of November 29, 1976 in Dallas, Texas — when a police officer named Robert Wood was murdered during a routine traffic stop. A young out-of-town drifter named Randall Adams was eventually convicted of the brutal crime, over eleven years prior to the release of this film. Using interviews with eye witnesses, investigators, attorneys, and character witnesses — Morris recreates the events of the crime from every different perspective offered in the accounts. It’s these reenactments that made The Thin Blue Line one of the most original and copied documentaries in history, but it’s Morris’ respect for the audience that makes this film a masterpiece.
If you’ve seen other great true crime docs like 1996’s Paradise Lost or 2001’s Murder on a Sunday Morning, you will immediately see how much of a debt they owe to The Thin Blue Line. Today it seems old hat, but the idea of using a motion picture, rather than a written piece or even a public movement to second-guess the conviction of a murderer, was a bold concept in the 1980s.
It would have been easy for Morris to use his camera and editing bay to paint a highly slanted, accusatory picture of how greedy police officers used Adams as a “proverbial scapegoat” (as he is called in a shocking bit of audio toward the end of the film) in order to get the conviction–but this movie isn’t interested in easy. Everyone knows justice isn’t easy, if it were, then CSI would be a reality series. It’s no surprise that before he got into filmmaking, Errol Morris was a private detective, and in his tireless questioning is where the film’s aforementioned respect for its audience comes into view.
The Thin Blue Line wants you to literally see every possible viewpoint of the crime in question and, like some of the witnesses, possibly get a little confused along the way. Morris essentially deputizes the viewers by asking them to keep track of statements and facts mentally while making their own decision on who’s telling the truth. Unlike most documentaries, this one doesn’t use any narration or even on-screen titles to remind you of the various speakers’ names. This film leaves it up to the viewer to keep up and put the pieces together, which may frustrate some and thrill others.
I also give kudos to Morris for keeping the focus 100 percent on the facts; you only hear the director’s voice off-screen once, while during the rest of the movie the interviewees face the camera and talk directly to the audience. This interview style again makes the viewer feel like an interrogator, facing the subjects and directly asking them the questions. In his later work, Morris’s voice would become more audible during questioning but he avoids the pitfall of making himself the star of his movies–he knows the subject is the center of any good documentary.
As I wrote at the opening of this review, Randall Adams’s case was re-opened following the release of The Thin Blue Line and the fact that it took a judge less than a year following the premiere of this film to release him from prison is a far better testament to the job done by the filmmakers than I could ever give. However, that anecdote alone doesn’t make this a great movie, it’s the completely groundbreaking style employed by director Errol Morris that puts it on that echelon. Watching The Thin Blue Line is akin to listening to Nirvana, absolutely everything you watch that was made afterward seems to be a shameless rip-off (or at least a heavy borrower).
It may sound like hyperbole, but I’m tempted to call this movie the finest documentary ever produced, because it manages to tell an intriguing story, stay balanced in its portrayal of the facts, invent a new style of investigative filmmaking, and entertain the hell out of its audience. There aren’t many movies, fiction or non-fiction, that can walk that wire but this one never slips.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Philip Glass’s mesmerizing electronic score that keeps the film moving along seamlessly. If you dig true crime, you owe yourself to see The Thin Blue Line, it does for crime scene reenactments what Citizen Kane did for nonlinear editing!