The Rear-View Mirror: The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

thin blue line

If you have seen other Erroll Morris films (TabloidThe Fog of WarGates of Heaven), you will know that he likes for people to tell their own stories. At the time of its inception Morris was doing in investigation on Dr. James Grigson, nicknamed Dr. Death, a psychiatrist who invariably advised a death sentence, because defendants would “kill again”. During this research he stumbled onto Adams’ story. The Thin Blue Line is about the murder of a police officer, and in it Morris has access to seemingly all the players in the drama, and the subsequent court case. Through their own versions of what transpires, or what they think transpires, Morris makes an uncharacteristically solid case for the defense. It is not much of a spoiler that an innocent person was convicted. After all, Adams was not only acquitted (partly) due to the film, but subsequently sued Morris for the rights to his story. As is so often the case with Morris’ films, the fascination in The Thin Blue Line is for the viewer to be allowed to form their own opinion as to why and how an innocent man was convicted, a guilty man went free (at least for a while), and several witnesses testified to facts they could not possibly have seen or heard.

Before the American Indie scene hit the mainstream due to (among other things) Sex, Lies and Videotapes, and before the explosion that was Quentin Tarantino, The Thin Blue Line was being marketed as a “Non-fiction feature”. The term “documentary” was thought to make the film unmarketable. Harvy Weinstein even sent Morris a letter after an interview, telling him he was “boring”. He suggested :

“It’s a mystery that traces an injustice. It’s scarier than Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a trip to the Twilight Zone. […] If you continue to be boring, I will have to hire an actor to pretend that he’s Errol Morris”.

These days it is not unusual to see dramatic re-enactments in even the most acclaimed documentaries, such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx. In The Thin Blue Line, re-enactments are used both for dramatic effect, to try and clarify perspectives and to show what probably did happen on the day of the murder. Morris uses several other devices for dramatic effect, such as newspaper clippings (a device he would return to in Tabloid), or clocks to denote problems with the timeline. Apart from those the film is relatively sparse, using mostly talking heads to make its point.

Recently there has been a great deal of interest in making television, podcasts and books about True Crime and the American Justice System. Apart from those I mentioned earlier, the hit podcast Serial attempted to re-investigate a crime in its first season. So if you’re having slight withdrawal from your quality true-crime content of choice, watch The Thin Blue Line. It stands with the best of them in high-quality true-crime documentaries. Pardon. Non-fiction features.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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