From ‘The Thin Blue Line’ to ‘The Jinx’: Errol Morris’s Prototype for Today’s True-Crime Documentary


Nonfics is now a newsletter! Please support documentary criticism by subscribing here:

In November 1976, in Dallas, Texas, officer Robert W. Wood pulled over a car that had been reported stolen and, as he approached the vehicle, was met by a revolver that shot him dead in the street. A drifter in his late 20s named Randall Adams was sentenced to death for the crime, in part based on testimony by teenager David Harris, with whom he spent the better part of the evening before the murder.

The following decade, Errol Morris, while preparing for a documentary about a corrupt for-hire prosecution psychologist, encountered the Adams case and found that the facts didn’t add up. After completing a documentary that questioned Adams’s role in the crime and made a convincing case that Harris most likely killed the police officer, Adams’s conviction was overturned and he was released after 12 years in prison, a change in course that occurred as a direct result of Morris’s documentary illuminating what was otherwise a largely forgotten murder case.

When The Thin Blue Line was released in 1988, few mainstream documentaries had so openly melded art and activism, utilizing nonfiction filmmaking as a mode by which a filmmaker sought to actively participate in, rather than merely “observe,” a subject and its course of events. As Charles Musser explains in an essay written for The Criterion Collection’s new release of The Thin Blue Line, it’s difficult to appreciate the wide breadth of the film’s influence because of how extensively that influence has shaped nonfiction filmmaking since “the challenge is to recognize the many levels on which it was a radically disruptive force that defied numerous assumptions about documentary as a mode of expression and ultimately reconfigured our understanding of what constitutes nonfiction audiovisual practices.”

The enormous influence of The Thin Blue Line is available in both the broad and the particular, from the means by which filmmakers today embrace without question documentary as a platform for advocacy to the now-established generic characteristics of true-crime nonfiction. This past weekend, the arrest of millionaire and murder suspect Robert Durst on the eve of the final episode of Andrew Jarecki’s serialized television documentary The Jinx carried the torch of The Thin Blue Line, signaling the apex of a renewed interest in a years-old murder case that otherwise risked falling away to the obscurity of history, thereby transforming said case into a (perhaps fleeting) cause célèbre motivated by a shared desire for justice and a collective immersion in slick nonfiction storytelling.

Errol Morris’s now-canonized film was disqualified for consideration for the 1989 Academy Awards as a result of — at least, according to the filmmaker — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s discomfort over Morris’s use of “reenactment” footage which violated conventional thinking about what constituted a documentary. As evidenced by the Oscars crowning of films like Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side and James Marsh’s Man on Wire since, conventional documentary filmmaking and its means of recognition have grown at ease with reenactments, if not embraced them as an essential tenet of the art form.

Yet Morris’s use of reenactment serves not simply to provide a stark or artful evocation of a historical subject. In The Thin Blue Line, the reenactment serves as a means of testing evidence, of illustrating the subjectivities of witnesses and speculators, of exploring various theories of events. As The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer astutely points out in his video appreciation of The Thin Blue Line (included as an extra in the Criterion release), we never see the film’s central inciting event reenacted precisely the way that Morris ultimately argues it occurred. The reenactment here does not serve to instruct an audience on “what happened,” but to illustrate several larger points about human subjectivity, confirmation bias, and the selective means by which we remember events and forge ties that may never have exited. In Morris’s words, “Memory is an elastic affair.”

As Morris explains in a new interview (another extra in the Criterion release), the director does not consider himself a “postmodern documentarian,” a label he sees as unwittingly placed upon him by critics and academics. The Thin Blue Line, for him, is not about the relativity of truth — he is, after all, openly and successfully able to convince us about an objective order of events — but about the relativity of memory and perception and the clouding of the truth that ensues as a result. The judge’s emotional ties with law enforcement, David Harris’s youth in the eyes of the jury, fellow officers’ desire to see someone (old enough to) be put to death for the crime, detectives’ distrust of a female officer’s account of events, Randall Adams’s reserved demeanor — all these elements are co-conspirators in the placement of a person behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

The best aspect that today’s true-crime documentaries inherit from The Thin Blue Line is the investment they share in the peripheries of every case: the insidious, structural, and often oblique forces of society and circumstance that converge in a seeming miscarriage of justice. More than a simple whodunit around a 1999 high school-based murder, Sarah Koenig’s Serial illustrates the labyrinthine and arbitrary nature of our justice system, pulling us away from a supposed proximity to any possible revelation of “the truth” as each episode dives further into conflicting reports and confounding bureaucracies. And The Jinx depicts with disturbing starkness how, in Matt Zoller Seitz’s words, “the rules don’t apply to the rich.”

But The Thin Blue Line is absent a key player in the formula for contemporary true-crime documentary: a charismatic individual at its center. Randall Adams possessed neither the empathetic charm of Serial’s Adnan Syed nor the magnetic eccentricity of Robert Durst. As observed by a Texas jury, Adams did not fit the profile of a token innocent or villain — he is modest, plainly spoken and reserved. In retrospect, this aspect greatly benefits The Thin Blue Line, a work whose provocative questions about the possibility of justice in a system prone to bias don’t risk becoming overshadowed by a cult of personality that reduces these issues into the arc of an individual “character.” With the discourse of Serial organized around whether it was Jay or Adnan and the current cultural moment of The Jinx lusting for the conviction of creepy Bob Durst, it seems that The Thin Blue Line would find it a challenge to fit into the true-crime documentary genre that it helped modernize as the personality of Randall Adams would hardly benefit from today’s courts of public opinion.

As Emily Nussbaum observes, “true-crime documentaries have emerged as a kind of secondary appeals system.” In this way, the current approach to true crime (and contemporary documentaries-as-advocacy about miscarriages of justice in general) emblematized by The Thin Blue Line is absent a third act, featuring open endings that at times infuriatingly deny closure. The Thin Blue Line’s real third act is featured as an extra on Criterion’s release, a 1989 NBC News interview with Morris, Adams and Adams’s lawyer subsequent his release. The third act of such films is the world in which the documentary exists — what institutions and people do as a result of the sunlight shone on a previously ignored problem. The third acts of The Jinx and Serial, respectively, are the arrest of Robert Durst and The Innocence Project’s investigation of the murder of Hae Min Lee. Just as their documentarians do not presume to be neutral, passive observers, so do these documentaries expect the world in which they inhabit to be anything but neutral and passive about their existence.

These are powerful examples of what documentaries can do as works of advocacy, not to mention an honest admission that filmmaking never exists within a vacuum of influence. But these real-life third acts can be horribly disappointing. Randall Adams’s release was followed by years of difficulty finding work and an ugly legal battle with Morris over the rights to his story. There is no reason to believe that current investigations into the cases of Adnan Syed or Robert Durst will lead to closure. If anything, these real-life third acts reveal the fiction of the “third act” itself: nonfiction rarely enjoys complete, satisfying, just endings.

But these true-crime films have many lessons to tell us beyond who did what and when. They give us a lens into how injustice occurs, a critical insight that applies to many, many other events that have never been given the feature documentary or series treatment. The Thin Blue Line, and the most rewarding aspects of films, television shows and podcasts inspired by it, explores the many truths that can be learned by a re-enactment on its own.

This post was originally published on March 18, 2015.