The Thin Blue Line and Its Prestige True Crime Legacy

Before Serial, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer, there was this Errol Morris documentary.

It’s hard to peruse any media guide these days without stumbling across a true crime TV show, movie, or podcast inspired by the success of NPR’s Serialpodcast, HBO’s The Jinx,or Netflix’s Making the Murderer— which is to say: something inspired by our fascination with true crime.

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This isn’t a new thing. As long as there has been media, there have been subsections of it that deal with true crime — told to us from a safe distance, of course. As Errol Morris, the documentarian subject of this retrospective put it to Slate earlier this year:

[True crime media is] a way of dramatizing really significant issues: How we know what we know? How have we come to the belief that we have? Is justice served by the various mechanisms in our society? Is the law just? And on and on and on and on and on.

We humans are fascinated by it, by what drives others to commit the most heinous of acts against their fellow humans. Real-life tragedy, murder, and how society does or doesn’t deal with it. It’s that last theme that doesn’t always get the focus it deserves — and something that tends to be part of the most celebrated and important works of true crime media…

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Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line was released on this date (August 25th) in 1988, launching the era of prestige true crime as we know it. Sure, it had something in common with more sensationalized accounts of murder, but it took its topic much more seriously and with much more in-depth focus than your average piece of true crime media. Past that, it pioneered some visual techniques (rendered to a haunting Philip Glass soundtrack) that made it something unforgettable.

The Thin Blue Line also had a very clear purpose that it succeeded in doing: to convince the world that a man had been put on death row for a crime that he didn’t commit…

The Thin Blue Linetells the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man who was wrongly convicted of killing Dallas police officer Robert Wood in 1976. Through a series of re-enactments of the shooting and subsequent investigation, as well as interviews with Adams, witnesses, the case’s defense attorneys, the judge, and three detectives, Morris outlines the evidence of the case. 

The film’s general argument? Adams was convicted of the crime by the local authorities, despite obviously not doing it, because the true perpetrator was still a juvenile and, therefore, couldn’t be sentenced to death for the murder. Through Morris’ own meticulously researched and presented argument (Morris had previously worked as a private investigator),The Thin Blue Linesucceeded in getting the case reopened. Adams was released from jail in 1989.

Morris’ unique visual style.

The strength of The Thin Blue Linelies not only in what is being argued, but how it’s being argued. In his documentary work, Morris has pioneered the use of a camera dubbed the Interrotron. The Interrotron allows an interview style that results in the subject staring directly into the camera, while also maintaining eye contact with Morris as he asks the questions. The result is unnervingly intimate interviews in which the subjects seem to be speaking directly with the audience.

Morris told FLM Magazine of the process:

When someone watches my films, it is as though the characters are talking to directly to them… There is no third party. On television we’re used to seeing people interviewed sixty-minutes-style. There is Mike Wallace or Larry King, and the camera is off to the side. Hence, we, the audience, are also off to the side. We’re the fly-on-the-wall, so to speak, watching two people talking. But we’ve lost something. 

We all know when someone makes eye contact with us. It is a moment of drama. Perhaps it’s a serial killer telling us that he’s about to kill us; or a loved one acknowledging a moment of affection. Regardless, it’s a moment with dramatic value. We know when people make eye contact with us, look away and then make eye contact again. It’s an essential part of communication. And yet, it is lost in standard interviews on film. That is, until the Interrotron.

Morris hadn’t yet fully developed the Interrotron by the time he filmed The Thin Blue Line,but he was already striving towards the cinematic system. The interviews in The Thin Blue Lineare very close to the ones captured with the Interrotron as Morris would put his head as close to the camera lens as possible when conducting the interviews. The result is mesmerizing. You can’t turn away.

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Morris paired this technique with the variation and repetition of stylish, slow-motion scene reenactments — especially an abstract reenactment of Wood’s shooting. Through the visual repetition of this scene, he asks the audience to continually question what might have happened with the addition of each new piece of evidence.

Morris told the Boston Globe in 2013: “The role of a good documentary is not to convince you about what happened, but to force you to think about what happened. And if it does that, then it really has done its job.” The Thin Blue Linedoesn’t ever visually show you a definitive version of events, but it gives you all the evidence you need to draw your own conclusion.

Watch The Thin Blue Line on Amazon

Speaking specifically about this process in relation to the reenactments in The Thin Blue Line,Morris told Vulture:

The reenactments in The Thin Blue Line were not show-and-tell. It’s one of the things that makes them unique. So, for example, we see a milkshake being tossed out of the window of the police car by the murdered policeman’s partner, Theresa Turko, the policewoman who may or may not have gotten out of the car until after the shooting – which was it? A crucial issue because it bears on the question, ‘What did she see? How much did she see? Where was she positioned when the shooting occurred?’

So when we see that reenactment, the reenactment isn’t showing us what happened. It’s inviting us to think about the question, Was she in or out of the patrol car? What could she have seen? What did she probably not see, because of her position at the time of the shooting? 

It’s a reenactment that’s investigative – as much for me as it is for someone watching the film. It’s an attempt to think about what really happened on the basis of the evidence, and to try and reason from the evidence back to reality, to the event itself.

The best prestige movies and TV not only have high production values, but challenge the viewer. They demand more of the audience and more of themselves. Morris’ own thoroughly-researched investigation made all of that possible, as the documentarian dove into this previously closed case to discover the truth. Speaking about the research process, Morris told Vulture:

The movie changed into something that I hadn’t imagined — an investigation into a terrible miscarriage of justice. And not just that. It also turned into an investigation into a murder – and, in fact, a series of murders that I believe were committed by David Harris, the chief accuser of the wrongfully convicted Randall Adams.

So there were really two parallel investigations going on at the same time: One looking for evidence that would exonerate Randall Adams and overturn his murder conviction, and the other into David Harris that would establish that he was the responsible party, that he had done the killing.

What an amazing story! I should have written it up at the time, and I didn’t. I still should write it up. In The Thin Blue Line, you see just the tip of an iceberg. You don’t see the story of the investigation itself, which is one of the most remarkable detective stories. It’s an amazing story, and something I am immensely proud of. I’m proud of the movie, but I’m even more proud of the investigation underlying the movie.

People like prestige true crime media because it gives them a role in the investigation. It makes them feel as if they have a hand in solving the crime and carrying out justice. Even if they didn’t. Even if the stakes are much higher than the usual media-consuming experience. The Thin Blue Linehas been called one of the most political and influential documentaries ever. It not only freed an innocent man from jail, but drew attention to a corrupt system that failed to protect the innocent. That failed to protect us.

Morris — and other examples of true crime prestige — demand more from the justice system, they demand more from their viewers, and they demand more from their own structure. As Morris told Slate:

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One thing that you do learn in an investigation is that we’re all prisoners of narrative, and we can’t escape from narrative; we need stories in order to figure out what the world is about. If the police come up with a story, they don’t look for any evidence that would suggest otherwise. And if you don’t look for evidence, you don’t find it.

True crime has always been around, but it’s much harder to ignore when it’s done with the style, research, and challenge that Morris so deftly demonstrates in The Thin Blue Line.And doesn’t the subject of an innocent man’s freedom and an ineffective system deserve the very best? We need more true crime media like The Thin Blue Line. Two decades later, we are in the prestige true crime heyday that perhaps couldn’t have been possible without Morris’ iconic cinema-changing — not to mention life-changing — work.