I am unsure of what the greater tragedy is: a man losing over ten years of his life for a crime he didn’t commit (and very nearly being executed for said offense), or the fact “documentaries” such as Fahrenheit 9/11 enjoy more commercial success than the excellent Errol Morris work The Thin Blue Line. On the surface, the former may seem far worse than the latter, but consider that it’s so-called journalism like that found in F 9/11 that colors false perceptions of reality and bears blame for guys…like Line’s Randall Adams staying incarcerated and unnoticed for over ten years. (I’m dealing in principles here, of course.) But when the impact of the media and its devotion to crap before truth is considered, the success of Moore’s film to Morris’s is disturbing – even frightening. And while Morris’s documentary was released in 1988, it still holds relevance today. I need to think only of the state trooper in Arkansas, who will probably get off Scott-free for murdering an unarmed mentally handicapped boy because he “thought” he was an escaped convict from Michigan – despite the fact that one brief comparison of photos calls to the contrary. People don’t like to admit the authorities watching over them at night are capable of the atrocious behavior presented in Morris’s documentary. And it’s that kind of indifference and lack of caring for facts that allow people like Adams to experience injustice to the extent he did from 1976 to 1988, as detailed in the film.
The Thin Blue Line played a large role in Adams’ eventual release. In the world of documentaries, that would make it the go-getter brother that rises from obscurity to achieve great things. F 9/11, much like its director, is the big fat disgusting slug that does nothing, but finds more favor with Mom and Dad because he refuses to get a job and move out of the house, thus delaying Empty Nest Syndrome, where they actually have to face the reality of life instead of the fantasy. With that said, I think Line fails on one front. Morris wants this to be an argument against the death penalty, but it isn’t. An argument against injustice perpetrated by the system? An argument against police and judicial corruption? An argument against quack doctors and faulty eyewitness testimony? Yes, on all counts. But to say the death penalty should be abolished for what Adams endures is like saying we should stop sending people to jail for fear of locking up the wrong guy. No, Line is effective and expertly crafted, but it’s more about questioning authority than altering punishment.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation exalts the picture far beyond what it has ever experienced on home video. I remember the murky, grainy quality of the original VHS, and this is a definite step above. The colors feel rich; the blacks deep. Despite the nearly twenty-year gulf between 1988 and today, Line looks as if it could have been made in our present time, save for the hair and clothing styles. There are only occasional traces of grain, and no edge enhancement I could see – all together, a sharp and respectful effort on the part of MGM.
Philip Glass’s haunting musical score will bring chills to your skin in more than one place. Other than that, the 2.0 track delivers the goods on dialogue with occasional oomph on the gunshots, which claimed the Dallas police officer’s life and sent Adams away for so long. It delivers well, in spite of low expectations for the kind of film that it is.
The bonus material is sparse, and leaves much room for improvement. What about update interviews with the major players? What about the authorities eating a little crow? Instead, all we get is a First Person TV Episode, which includes an interview with Morris. “Missed opportunity,” is putting it lightly.
The Thin Blue Line has been slighted its rightful place in the pantheon of great documentary filmmaking. While Michael Moore sees how many facts he can manufacture from his own deranged mind (and benefits greatly from such activity), Morris proves the classier act by dealing only in facts, and actually using them to prove his ultimate conclusion – that Randall Adams was falsely imprisoned by a world more concerned with punishment than truth. It’s a cardinal example of what is right with documentary filmmaking and, unfortunately, there is still need for the introspection it pleads us to take with ourselves and our society. For a moment, forget about A/V presentations and bonus materials, and just watch this highly important masterpiece. If you let the broader questions seep beneath the surface of your mind, they will scare the hell out of you – but they may also enact the kind of change we need.
Special Features List
- “First Person” Episode “Mr. Personality”
- MGM Trailers