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.

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Dope, anyone?

It’s somewhat surprising that Errol Morris’ Wormwood seems to be the first documentary to combine a cast with big names for the dramatic scenes with the traditional doc-staples of talking heads, collages, home movies and grainy photos. It’s a balancing act in more ways than one, and here, it seems to work, if only just. Wormwood is about the death of Frank Olson, who seemed to have fallen out of a 13th story hotel room window in New York and died on the sidewalk in his underwear. He was a CIA chemist who worked for the U.S. army and did research for biological warfare. For years, the story went like this: Olson, together with some of his workmates, was drugged with LSD in November 1953 for a new project about mind control, had a bad trip and finally committed suicide ten days later by leaping to his death. It was an accident, the CIA said, and they were sorry, and the Olson family got to meet President Johnson, who apologized for the tragedy, and the CIA promised to stop all mind-control projects, and that was that. Continue reading