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“Thin Blue Line” by Errol Morris Essay

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Updated: May 24th, 2021

“Thin Blue Line,” directed by Errol Morris and released in 1986, is considered a breakthrough investigative documentary that became the benchmark measure for nearly all investigative films and television documentaries to be directed later. For this Internet assignment, the research about this film explores how “Thin Blue Line” introduced the measure for investigative documentaries, what influence the film has on staged reenactments, and the impact of “Thin Blue Line” on the conviction of Adams.

In “Thin Blue Line,” Morris turns his attention to the wrongful conviction of Texan Randall Adams, who was arrested and prosecuted for the murder of a police officer instead of the actual murderer. The documentary was released in 1988. Before then, an audience had never experienced a documentary with “point-counterpoint interviews, Philip Glass’ haunting score, or atmospheric reenactments in a documentary” (Eggert para. 1). Based on this unique approach to a documentary, Morris was able to collect and provide evidence invalidating witness testimony that was relied upon to convict Adams, but the ruling was overturned in 1989 because of the work of Morris. As such, “Thin Blue Line” was classified as the best documentary ever.

It is widely acknowledged that “Thin Blue Line” introduced new standards for investigative documentaries. Traditionally, according to Tim Dirks, “the earliest documentaries in the US and France were either short newsreels, instructional pictures, records of current events, or travelogues (termed actualities) without any creative story-telling, narrative, or staging” (para. 1). Documentary films are generally non-fictional aspects of life depicting factual works of art. For decades, as films developed and adopted narrative techniques, documentaries developed and assumed numerous different categories, some of which have now been classified as non-objective and propagandistic (Dirks para. 1). Documentaries, in their most original form, are classified as nonfiction works that generally rely on reinventing a subject matter using available evidence, such as photographs, sounds, or prior testimonies, or a filmmaker may focus on a subject matter and then proceed to assert and explore their claim using the course of the film (Eggert para. 6).

Morris established a new standard for investigative documentaries that focused on an expose, including interviews. “Thin Blue Line” turns out to be a murder investigation and not merely a story of murder. The film draws the attention of the audience through its defense nature based on the interview with Randall Adams and the main witness, David Harris. Morris controls and directs his interviews in a specific manner to demonstrate that Adams is innocent and Harris was the actual murderer. In the documentary, Morris uses every action to show clues by involving criminals, witnesses, officers of the law, and talks involved. As such, the audience can explore the world of Adams, the criminal justice system, and the witness. Notably, Morris appears to have inventively directed and altered the scenes and interviews to demonstrate precisely what he wanted the audience to understand – Adams was innocent, and the actual killer was Harris. The interviews advance the story but cleverly explore the criminal justice system. Lankford observes that before 1988, documentaries were not like “Thin Blue Line.” Morris uses several points of view based on evidence and specific footage to lead the audience to draw their own conclusion.

Therefore, the film was seen as a new form of documentary because of the diverse viewpoints explored. These viewpoints reinforce verisimilitude but eliminate any potential confusion because of the clear storyline. Morris manages to obtain critical evidence that shows that the prosecution was anxiously waiting to charge Adams with no fair trial process. Consequently, critical evidence was concealed, and Morris strives to expose the conspiracy between the police and the prosecution.

While Morris introduced a new form of documentary, critics did not fail to offer their views. Notably, “Thin Blue Line” was never recognized as a documentary because of the inherent dramatization (Lankford para. 6). However, the claim of dramatization was seen as more technical rather than representative. That is, dramatizations in the film were not a misrepresentation of facts. They were recreations of specific perspectives of persons interviewed. The slow-motion image of the dropping milkshake captured “the realness of the film” (Lankford para. 6). Morris violated multiple previously established rules of documentaries, which avoided ‘fairness’ but hell-bent on proving the innocence of Adams, dismissed detachment, advocated for Adams, and matched and mixed interviews to prove his points using professionals actors and participants (Levy para. 7). The film was thus seen as a form of augmented reality driven by acting devices, a stylized, nearly dreamlike version of the legal process (Levy para. 8).

“Thin Blue Line” employs reenactment of the subject matter from different perspectives of the involved persons and professionals to ensure that the audience can better grasp facts and notice failures in the interpretation of facts and separate fiction from facts (Coccellato para. 2). More importantly, reenactment does not create fiction or distort facts of the killing. Morris uses reenactment in an open way to ensure that viewers can notice them. Reenactments present vital aspects of the interviews and case facts to allow Morris to demonstrate a potential ‘chain of interferences’ and failure in the system. The reenacted milkshake scene clearly captures the discrepancies between actual events and Turko’s statement, and, therefore, Morris aims for new facts to develop a novel narrative. Thus, memory and perception could fail and, thus, selective at best. Purists do not appreciate reenactments because of their standards that require present images and the non-involvement of the director (Lankford para. 6). Reenactment generally lacks normal dramatization. The audience must evaluate what is presented. For Morris, “low-key lighting and silhouetted framing of the individual players” (Coccellato para. 5) demonstrates the reenactment of scenes.

The impact of “Thin Blue Line” on the conviction of Adams is extremely important. After more than 12 years in prison, Adams’ conviction was eventually dismissed due to “malfeasance by the prosecuting attorney Douglas Mulder, and inconsistencies (aka “whoppers”) in the testimony of Emily Miller” (Cone para. 10). Adams’ lawyer cited suppression of evidence and perjured testimony. After a year following the release of the film, Adams was set free in 1989, but Harris was never indicted for the killing of the police officer, Robert Wood. Nonetheless, in 2004, he was executed for another murder case (Cone para. 10). Mulder colluded with the key witness Harris to frame Adams, but Mulder denied such claims. This documentary film explores the thin line between fiction and truth. The stylized pictures and other minor details that were increasingly important for the documentary were used to portray the flaws of “American justice, immoral motivations, withheld data, interpretations of “facts” and the inevitably murky and Rashomon-like nature of “truth” (Levy para. 9). Noticeably, Morris does not show that he fully understands the victim and lets the audience answer the raised questions.

Works Cited

Chan, Wilfred. 2014. Web.

Coccellato, Nick. 2010. Web.

Cone, Nathan. 2015. Web.

Dirks, Tim. 2017. Web.

Eggert, Brian. Deep Focus Review. 2017. Web.

Halbrooks, Glenn. 2017. Web.

Lankford, Ronnie D. n.d. Web.

Levy, Emanuel. Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988). 2008. Web.

Marshall, Carla. 2015. Web.

Meyer, Robinson. The Atlantic. 2015. Web.

Parker, Emily. The New Yorker. 2014. Web.

Ross, Sean. 2016. Web.

Sawers, Paul. The Future of Radio. 2013. Web.

Sisario, Ben. The New York Times. 2016. Web.

Stevenson, Seth. Slate. 2014. Web.

Varner, Tricia. Streaming vs. Terrestrial Radio: Who Will Win? 2015. Web.

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