The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Rare proof that movies literally have the power to change lives.
The Thin Blue Line is a documentary about a guy who moves into Dallas, lands a job the day he arrives even though everyone else is out of work, things are turning up for him left and right, life is good. But then a cop gets murdered in cold blood and our lucky guy finds himself fingered as the shooter by a 16-year-old with a rap sheet bigger than The Lonestar State itself. So he gets locked up and pleads his case, but Johnny Law’s already made up his mind and his chances of freedom are subsequently reduced to nada.
But then along comes film maker Errol Morris – a documentarian known at the time for his particular interest in pet cemeteries and backwoods townies – who happens upon this guy’s story by complete chance and notices that some shit is most definitely up. Upon recognizing the once-in-a-lifetime subject matter that’s fallen into his lap, he rolls camera, starts interviewing absolutely everyone involved in the trial and gets to giving this convict the defense he was never allowed. And for someone who makes movies for a living, someone with no formal training as a lawyer or private eye, it’s awfully appalling what he manages to unearth.
Texas, man. That ass-backwards legal system of theirs is exactly why you’re not supposed to mess with it.
This is an interesting movie to write about because even though the folks in front of the camera are the ones driving the story along as they dig their own graves and exhuming others for the sake of being on camera and calling it before the fat lady’s even cleared her throat, Morris really is the most fascinating individual of the bunch when all is said and done. The story is great, it’s absolutely devastating and may very well prompt you to upgrade to that direct flight instead of stopping off in Fort Worth, but the way Morris puts it together is the reason it’s so damn compelling.
It’s as though Juror #8 stepped off the screen with camera in hand and was told to dissect this trial down the very last detail, get confessions out of witnesses, jurors, prosecutors and lawmen that have never been caught on the record, and don’t turn it into a snoozefest either. Needless to say, he succeeds on every front and the strangest, most tragic part of all is that it took someone completely outside of the legal system to do it. There’s more examinations, cross-examinations, backtracking and re-enactments than you can shake a stick at that continually reveal one more shocking turn of events after another. In short, it could totally be used as evidence. And even though it’s a tricky situation when you have to take someone’s testimony at their word, especially when they’re cuffed at the wrists and ankles, but as the truth gradually unravels it becomes this monster that will make you furious and wonder what circle of Hell someone gets sent to for destroying someone’s life without the grounds to do so.
But, man, Morris and convicted killer Randall Wallace have a freakin’ carnival of weirdos and egos to deal with. Wallace himself comes off like a man on the brink of defeat whose emotions are simply exhausted after years of falling on deaf ears, but then there are his accusers who range from drive-by witnesses who think that watching enough Columbo episodes grants you credibility as a detective to our number one accuser of the hour, David Harris, who talks about the whole thing like someone just asked him to talk about the pros and cons of ice cream for two hours. You watch these characters who swore on a Bible to put Wallace away and fought tooth and nail to keep him there, and you can’t help but wonder how he could have gotten there in the first place. Astounding how ineffective the powers of reason can be.
Anyway, it’s just something to be seen and I’ve got this crazy hunch that the judges down South still haven’t exactly changed their ways all too much either.
I’m a big fan of documentaries, but I’m an even bigger fan of required viewings. The Thin Blue Line undoubtedly falls into the latter category and continues to be regarded as one of the greatest documentaries ever made for damn good reason. Part of why that is goes back to how outstanding Morris is as both film maker and investigator, but the true gravity of this movie’s importance is due to the way it directly impacted the individuals involved and ultimately removed the blindfold that’d been cutting off all circulation to Lady Justice’s brain. If there’s any complaint I can make, the only thing I can come up with is that it’s pretty information-heavy, but let’s not mistake that with being boring now, this is Documentaries 101.
Can’t give anything away in regards to specifics, but for a genre that is often aimed at inciting change in the world, it’s flat-out amazing to see something that actually achieves it. Not to say that other documentaries aren’t worth a damn in comparison, but lemme tell ya’, the world would be a pretty swell place if efforts like An Inconvenient Truth and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room all had the same effect that this did.