[This is my third entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]
Thanks to watching a lot of Hitchcock movies and film noir, I’ve always been terrified of being caught in a real-life “wrong man” scenario. The kind where circumstantial evidence links you to a crime—usually a murder—and protest as you may, you’re still arrested, tried, and somehow convicted. Maybe you’re jailed, maybe you’re executed, but the point is that you can’t fight it. Fate has chosen this bad path for you. Fate, and a flawed justice system.
That same nightmare devours Randall Adams, the protagonist of Errol Morris’s groundbreaking documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988). I say “groundbreaking” in part because of its formal construction, but also because, get this, it brought up new evidence and more or less got Adams set free. It’s the rare movie that actually had a direct, tangible effect on someone’s life. Such is the power of Morris’s interview technique (which renders the director himself invisible) and his gradual, multimedia build-up of evidence.
This documentary doesn’t rely on voice-of-god narration or authoritative title cards. Instead, the evidence speaks for itself. The mild-mannered Adams and his one-time acquaintance David Harris (who, per Morris, actually shot the cop in 1976) are given space to tell their respective stories; then, over time, Morris weaves in testimony by investigators, lawyers, and dubious eyewitnesses, deepening our impressions of “what really happened” and developing several layers of “truth.” Concurrently, he establishes a veneer of objectivity through physical data: maps, photos, diagrams, calendars, newspaper clippings, even a drive-in schedule.
But perhaps the most powerful form of documentation in Morris’s toolbox is the crime scene reenactment. His are different from the ones you’d typically see in a true-crime TV special. They’re elliptical, affectless, more oriented toward objects than people, and set to Philip Glass’s typically chilly, minimalist score. Often they reiterate a single point—e.g., that inscrutable series of gunshots—but they also change over the course of the film, adding new angles and details as our understanding of the crime evolves. Here, the truth is malleable. It can always be improved by new, better information.
What’s more, “the truth” can always be skewed during investigation. Midway through the film, defense attorney Edith James suggests that Adams was prosecuted not on the strength of the evidence, but because “he was a convenient age.” At 28, he could receive the death penalty, whereas the 16-year-old Harris couldn’t. Here and elsewhere, the film goes beyond arguing that Adams is innocent, and asserts that the whole of Texan (or hell, American) justice is corrupt. Its priorities are mixed up. It depends too heavily on the judgments of flawed individuals. As Dennis White, another of Adams’ attorneys, explains:
Some policeman… made a decision about who to prosecute and set the wheel of justice in motion in the wrong direction, and they got going so fast no one could stop them.