Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 30, 2015)
In November 1976, someone killed Dallas Police Officer Robert W. Wood. Randall Adams went to jail for the crime. 1988’s documentary The Thin Blue Line examines whether or not the authorities imprisoned the right person.
The film shows how Officer Wood got killed during a routine traffic stop and then follow the investigation of the crime. We learn about teenager David Harris, a delinquent who confesses to the murder but who later retracts this claim.
On the day in question, Harris stole a neighbor’s car and gave Adams a ride. They hung out for a while, drank booze/smoked some pot and saw a drive-in movie. Harris tells authorities that Adams killed Officer Wood and they believe him. Line attempts to unravel the truth.
Directed by Errol Morris, Line examines the case via a number of methods. As expected, we find a mix of interviews. These give us comments from Adams, Harris, attorneys Edith James and Dennis White, witnesses RL and Emily Miller and Michael Randell, judge Don Metcalfe, detectives Jackie Johnson, Marshall Touchton and Sam Kittrell, Internal Affairs investigator Dale Holt, Harris’s friends Hootie Nelson, Dennis Johnson, and Floyd Jackson, gas station employee Elba Carr and appellate attorney Melvyn Carson Bruder.
Line also delivers dramatic re-enactments. This means we can see representations of the murder as well as connected events.
Those re-enactments become arguably the weakest aspect of Line, mostly due to the over-dramatic manner in which Morris stages them. I think I get the point, as I believe Morris wanted to show the impressionistic ways memories change and how viewpoints alter our perceptions of reality, but even so, the re-enactments lend a “TV movie” feel to the proceedings. These segments tend to be so overacted and cheesy that they distract from the movie’s point.
Some of Morris’s other filmmaking choices cause problems. For one, I find it irritating that he never offers on-screen credits for the various interview subjects. Sure, we can figure out their roles/involvement via context, but I think it makes more sense to simply tell us who they are. If it takes me some time to figure out a person’s identity, that means I lose my focus on the material itself – why create an unnecessary distraction for the viewer?
Morris also overuses slow-motion and other showy visual techniques throughout Line. Like the re-enactments, these choices give off a semi-cheesy vibe and take away from the core material itself. Morris boasts excellent documentary subjects and information, but he doesn’t seem confident that the viewers will stick with the film if he doesn’t create a supposedly dynamic visual presence.
Again, this becomes a disappointment, as the story being told offers more than enough merit to occupy the audience. Line maintains part of its legend because it prompted Adams’ release from jail. Morris examines the case in a satisfying manner and brings it out in a logical way as well.
Except for the distractions from his visual choices, that is. Morris works well as a detective, and he explores Adams’ case in a solid manner. He also manages social criticism, as he strongly implies Adams went to jail instead of Harris solely because the older man could be subject to the death penalty.
Unfortunately, Morris doesn’t present the information all that well in terms of filmmaking techniques. Line remains worth a look, as even with its flaws, it still offers an engaging story. I just wish Morris had trusted his material more and relied on visual gimmicks less.