The Mystery of D.B. Cooper Review: HBO Documentary Does its Best to Close the Case

HBO’s The Mystery of D.B. Cooper presents a lot of good evidence about the most famous hijacker in history but do we get to know him?

The Mystery of DB Cooper HBO
Photo: HBO | AP Photo

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is a surprisingly smooth ride. You would think, with all the suspects and twists the story takes, it would run into some heavy turbulence. But director John Dower (Thrilla in Manila, My Scientology Movie) and his crew navigate the story of the only unsolved airplane hijacking in U.S. history artfully.

Dower sets the tone of the times before the documentary leaps into the wild. He intercuts an interview with the stewardess on the legendary flight with period airline advertisements and clips from informational shorts. What a difference the flying experience was in the early ‘70s. The food looks edible, there appears to be ample leg room, and airline stewardesses’ weight was monitored more than boarding passengers. There were no metal detectors or security to speak of. By the mid-1970s, hijackings to Cuba became fodder for late night jokes and air travel mishaps became their own film subgenre.

The lax security of the fairly new industry is the reason on Nov. 24, 1971, the night before Thanksgiving, a man identified as Dan Cooper paid twenty bucks to board a Northwest Orient Boeing 727 flight bound for Seattle. The ample seating is why he had room for a suitcase with a bomb in it. The documentary doesn’t mention what was on that flight’s menu but, if the commercials are any indication, they might have been too heavy a meal for a man planning to deplane midair. Dower does such an exemplary job in catching all the right clues, the audience is afforded the leisure of coloring the details.

One novel approach the documentary takes in its storytelling is how the events are laid out. The interviews with the people who were involved in the case give the details of the hijacking and its aftermath in short but satisfying bursts. Suspects which will come into play in the future have their stories told in between the stages of the hijacking, and the subsequent manhunt. It breaks up all the stories into easily digestible bits, eliminates monotony from any one source or narrative, and allows information to flow from several sides.

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Splitting the future suspects with the events as they occurred also clears the palate, allowing each new D.B. Cooper possibility to be evaluated freshly, without an easy and immediate comparison. And each one is fascinating, credible, and both objectively and emotionally believable. And the people who knew the possible D.B. Coopers all have impeccable bona fides. One is a daughter of a flyboy, another a niece whose uncle disappeared when she was young. A Special Services officer feels like a traitor to this day for turning in an adventurous and ambitious friend who loved everything about parachuting. He’s not losing any sleep over it, though. He is convinced he did the right thing.

This is reflected on the other side of the chase. The FBI agent who fatally shot a copycat hijacker, who may have been the real D.B. Cooper on a second mission, to death has no qualms. His suspect, Richard McCoy, shot first. McCoy should get a mini-doc of his own, whether he is D.B. Cooper or not. He broke out of jail twice after being captured, and went out like a gangster in an old-school Warner Brothers movie.

Another interesting subject is a woman who used to fly out of a small airport not too far from the Cooper scenario. Bruce Thun and his wife, the couple who owned and ran the tarmac, describe her as a great flyer, an expert parachuter, and one of the first people to have had a successful gender reassignment in the state of Washington. But when they think Robert Dayton, who they knew as Barbara, might have been the famous hijacker, they take it much better than the other guests at their place. During the interview they describe a woman who begins screaming out of control after Barbara admits she’s D.B. Screaming, they say, and we believe them but it makes for an incredibly funny telling.

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper maintains a very subtle wit throughout. The archival footage is both appropriate and occasionally hysterical. The visuals which accompany the sequence where the FBI is first called in, as recounted by an agent at the time, includes a shot of someone eating fast food in a squad car’s passenger seat. It is reminiscent of the classic comedy Airplane!, but it was on the ground, and it didn’t look like he’d brought enough glue for everyone to sniff for what would prove to be a far-out case.

The plane stopped to pick up the ransom and drop off the passengers. The crew kept the air travelers ignorant. They didn’t know they were on a hijacked flight until after they landed. Back in the air, Cooper told the pilots to circle around while he figured out how to open the back hatch, something they had to guide him through via intercom. They don’t know when he parachuted out with the $200,000 ransom money. They knew when they felt the air pressure change, and assumed they were down one man. A team of 40 FBI agents, criminologists, journalists, and attorneys worked the case for decades. Norjack, the FBI code name for the immediate search for D.B. Cooper, was the largest manhunt operation the federal agency had ever conducted.

The documentary team also speaks with Bruce Smith, the author of D.B. Cooper and the FBI, who’s looked over all the possibilities and is a wonderful companion voice to the agents, all of whom have excellent memories when it comes to this particular case. The flight crew could only guess where Cooper jumped, we learn. They calculated the time and their flight pattern, pointed to a map and told the agents he jumped somewhere “around here,” indicating a 20 to 25 mile stretch of woods to search.

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While we see the area being combed in archival footage, we hear how the investigators considered whether Cooper got caught in a tree, or an errant wind, and died. They discuss the possibility of the $200,000 being lost in the 10,000 feet freefall. There is an exciting segment where a $6,000 bundle is found by a teenager in a riverbed.

The FBI officially closed the case in 2016, citing a lack of strong leads, and going with the last suspect we hear about in the interviews. He was as likely a suspect as any. We may not find out who hijacked the plane a half century ago, but we learn a lot about D.B. Cooper. He was polite, only mildly impatient, and quite pleasant for a man with a bomb between his legs and some kind of grievance on his mind. He didn’t tell the stewardess what was bothering him, but neither she nor the flight crew had any real trouble from him. It was the ride of their life.

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is an adventurous documentary with a fun take on a mysterious lawbreaking legend. There is no rancor, judgment or patronizing in the telling, but it keeps its sense of humor without losing its drama or suspense. Every one of the people who’ve come forward have an interesting story to tell and are looking for only one thing: that the rest of the world finds the closure they believe they have found. Each are asked if they truly believe, without a shadow of a doubt, the person they claim to be D.B. Cooper is the real hijacker. It’s the one thing they agree on. Once you write off any hope of closure, it is a worthy payoff.

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper debuts Nov. 25 at 9 p.m. on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max.


4 out of 5