Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) is widely recognized as a monumental achievement in the documentary tradition. A recent poll by the British Film Institute ranked it fifth in the documentary pantheon. In 2001, it was placed on the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. For those viewing this canonical film today, 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.
Though generally admired from the outset, Morris’s film was nonetheless highly controversial. Even as the National Society of Film Critics hailed it as the best documentary of the year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refused to consider it for an Oscar due to its use of “reenactments” and other heresies. Traditionalists at the Academy felt it should be evaluated as a fiction film because of its “scripted content,” a phrase that doubtless also referred to Morris’s stylized use of lighting, music, costuming, and camera work.
Morris was already working against established conventions in his first two documentaries, Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981). These acerbic, perverse, and often surreal comedies enjoyed a loyal following among a select group of adventurous cinephiles. But The Thin Blue Line was clearly going for something bigger, implicitly addressing a much larger citizenry, both in the U.S. and abroad, as it took on an obviously important subject: a miscarriage of justice that could have easily led to the legal execution of an innocent man. Reexamining the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of police officer Robert W. Wood in Dallas, Texas, on November 28, 1976, Morris interviewed not only Adams but also key witnesses for the prosecution (David Harris, Michael Randell, Emily Miller), police officers involved in the investigation from Dallas (Gus Rose, Jackie Johnson, Marshall Touchton, Dale Holt) and nearby Vidor (Sam Kittrell), the defense attorneys (Edith James, Dennis White), and the trial judge (Donald J. Metcalfe), among others. The film did not simply reveal that Adams was innocent; it identified the actual killer—David Harris. Morris’s investigation eventually freed Adams, who was otherwise destined to serve a life sentence in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court made a procedural ruling that led the governor of Texas to commute his death sentence.
Serious documentaries focusing on high-stakes topics generally embrace a well-established set of conventions. Instead, as one Variety reviewer noted, this film’s visual elements were “entirely at odds with the technique of the ordinary documentary.” To offer one small example: The Thin Blue Line does not provide the names and titles of interviewees in the lower third of the screen, as is customary. Adams might refer to Gus Rose in a way that suggests that the next person to appear on-screen is Rose, but we can’t be certain. The only sure way to identify members of the police force is through the end credits. In short, The Thin Blue Line presents its characters more in the style of fiction films than of traditional documentaries. Certainly, Morris incorporates newspaper items and other documents, but he duplicates and presents these records in an aestheticized way, displaying an indifference to traditional signs of authenticity. Likewise, Philip Glass’s haunting score often plays under the testimony of the interviewees, providing an emotional inflection to their statements that documentaries have traditionally avoided as undesirable manipulation. By using Glass’s work in this way, as “movie music,” Morris is once again borrowing from the conventions of fiction filmmaking. Indeed, when talking about The Thin Blue Line, Morris has often associated it with film noir.
For many documentary practitioners and scholars, cinema verité, which flourished after 1960, fulfilled the practice’s long-felt aspirational principles. Seeking to show people in the immediacy of their lives, this method embraced the use of handheld cameras and natural light (or if the filmmaker needed to employ lights, this intrusion was kept to a minimum). Vérité filmmakers, of course, rejected reenactments, which had been common in earlier documentaries, before the introduction of lightweight, portable sync-sound cameras. Many also avoided interviewing their subjects, hoping to catch their social actors off guard in a revealing moment. Morris rejected all of these strategies—and even ridiculed the terminology. “Cinema verité set back documentary filmmaking twenty or thirty years,” he famously proclaimed in a Cineaste interview.
The Thin Blue Line’s flouting of vérité principles is underscored by the emphasis Morris gives to the role of production designer Ted Bafaloukos in the opening credits. Morris films his subjects in formal settings, obliterating their everyday milieus. Lighting is extensive and nonnaturalistic. Clothing appears to be carefully chosen and coordinated by the filmmakers. The resulting highly stylized color schema is often breathtaking in its audacity. To begin with, Randall Adams is dressed in white—the color of innocence. Filmed against a textured black background, he is implicitly foregrounded as a victim of injustice. In contrast, one of the people who offered last-minute (false) testimony against Adams, Michael Randell (Randall’s doppelgänger), is dressed in black. Police officers—the “thin blue line” that protects the public from criminals—wear striped ties containing lines of blue. The backgrounds for their interviews are also often given a blue cast. The color red is associated with the law: Judge Metcalfe’s tie as well as the flashing lights of police cars are red. Orange is the color of criminality. David Harris wears the orange-colored clothing of a prisoner. His interview takes place against a contoured prisonlike wall that is also bathed in orange. This color-coding takes on added complexity as Emily Miller, an inveterate liar who provided the prosecution with key (false) testimony that convicted Adams, wears an orangish sweater that appears red under cold, bluish light. Miller, a woman with her own criminal history who likes to imagine herself as a private detective and crime buster, is embraced by the prosecuting attorney and the law. In Dallas, orange became the new red as criminals manipulated the law to gain their freedom and the justice system sent an innocent man to death row.
Despite his general disdain for vérité filmmaking, Morris, somewhat surprisingly, claims a strong affinity with one of its masters: Frederick Wiseman. In fact, Morris and Wiseman share much more than their disparate styles would suggest. In Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), and Hospital (1970), Wiseman films people in authority who typically evaluate and instruct the less powerful: the criminally insane, students, poor black city residents, and patients. Suddenly, the power dynamics are reversed: it is these professionals (psychiatrists, teachers, policemen, doctors) who are being watched and evaluated by the public that sees his films. Ultimately, Wiseman does not judge individuals so much as institutions—a quality that resonates with The Thin Blue Line.
Also in line with his cinema verité colleagues, Morris is very intent on capturing people’s facial expressions and body language. Like a jury, audiences evaluate whether or not those on-screen are telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In The Thin Blue Line, when Officer Gus Rose casually remarks that Adams almost overacted his innocence, we cannot help but note that the police had quickly assumed that he was guilty and failed to consider the other possibility—that maybe Adams overacted his innocence because he was innocent. Or consider Michael Randell. He claims to have a photographic memory yet hesitates as he tries to remember if the police car was in front of or behind the car from which Wood would be gunned down. If someone else spoke these words, even though we were assured that they were Randell’s, this revelation of an uncertain memory would not carry the same credibility. The authentic, unscripted performance of those in front of the camera is as critical to Morris as it is to vérité filmmakers.
Where Morris decidedly departs from vérité filmmakers is in his use of scripted scenes. These appear frequently, but their function is actually limited and clarified by the underlying importance of the on-camera interviews. In this respect, the term reenactment is an unfortunate misnomer. Barry Scheck, one of the founders of the Innocence Project, has argued that these scenes are similar to courtroom visualizations, which enable jurors to better understand the testimony of police investigators and witnesses. Morris does not reconstruct what he believes to be a truthful account of the murder; rather he depicts these conflicting accounts of events in ways that will help the spectator understand each account more clearly. Scheck has argued that Morris’s documentary effectively follows the form of an appellate brief. The simulations, then, do not represent the incorporation of fictional modes into the documentary (and so blur the distinctions) but properly align the film with established legal conventions and the discourse of sobriety that is nonfiction.
In The Thin Blue Line, Morris provides a different and arguably more powerful kind of truth than does cinema verité. This might be called “legal film truth,” since The Thin Blue Line challenges and then refutes the judicial or state truth that Adams was guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. During the 1970s and 1980s, cultural critics of various stripes had challenged the idea that documentary as a form was well suited to the pursuit of truth, or that such a pursuit was even possible. Often their critiques were based on the demonstrable failures of correspondence between audiovisual representations and the realities they purported to re-present. Increasingly, documentary truth claims were attacked under a postmodernist rubric, whose advocates asserted that truth was unstable, subjective, and finally unknowable. In the mid to late 1980s, such documentary filmmakers as Ross McElwee, Michael Moore, and Nick Broomfield largely retained the vérité repertoire but responded to these critiques by moving in front of the camera—thus making explicit the source of the film’s subjectivity. Morris stayed behind the camera. Still, when The Thin Blue Line was first released, some critics tried to argue that it was consistent with a postmodern outlook. Such a position became less and less tenable, however (and was forcefully rejected by Morris himself). That Randall Adams was innocent of murder is not a provisional or subjective truth.
The Thin Blue Line raised fundamental questions about the death penalty. Capital punishment had been suspended by the Supreme Court during much of the 1970s and was resumed shortly after Harris murdered Officer Wood in November 1976 (the first of these renewed executions was in January 1977). The issue of capital punishment became increasingly urgent as the number of executions nationwide grew: from one in 1981 (when Vernon, Florida was released) to twenty-five in 1987 (while The Thin Blue Line was being made). After reaching a high point of ninety-eight executions in 1999, these numbers have fallen, to thirty-nine in 2013—partially due to the abolishment of the death penalty in various states in recent years: New York (2007), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), and Maryland (2013).
The Thin Blue Line helped launch an era in which this opposition became newly politically viable in many parts of the United States. In its wake, the courtroom documentary arguably became the preeminent and most influential genre in the nonfiction mode. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have acknowledged The Thin Blue Line as an inspiration for their Paradise Lost trilogy, which ultimately contributed to the freeing of the West Memphis Three, one of whom was on death row. Other filmmakers have also followed in Morris’s footsteps. DNA evidence has revealed that many more innocent people have been unjustly convicted of murder. Morris has argued that the problems with the death penalty go far beyond the possibility of executing an innocent. “The death penalty makes mistakes more likely to happen,” he remarked. “It’s no accident that you see this whole history of flawed, faulty convictions. The death penalty is a mistake-engendering machine.”
Through The Thin Blue Line, Morris was able to argue strenuously and effectively for the pursuit of truth in documentary film. “Truth isn’t guaranteed by style or expression. It isn’t guaranteed by anything,” he famously warned. The Thin Blue Line demonstrated that the reality effect favored by cinema verité was not necessary and had become a deceptive cliché. This did much to open up documentary practice to a wider range of styles and techniques. (One could argue, for instance, that the acceptance of animation in such documentaries as 2008’s Waltz with Bashir owes something to this new attitude.) Yet this new freedom and corresponding lack of guarantees also demand an exceptional rigor. What is perhaps most remarkable about The Thin Blue Line is this double achievement, this double renewal: first, a serious critique of the established aesthetic of documentary that freed filmmakers to choose from a far richer array of representational methods; second, reestablishing the viability and even centrality of truth value to documentary in a way that impacted the public sphere and society at large.
Paradoxically, by embracing an array of techniques associated with fiction film, Morris did not undermine the distinction between fiction and documentary but rather distinguished more clearly the documentary mode from its fictional counterpart, while giving documentary a new vitality, rigor, and importance. The Thin Blue Line represented something of an epistemological break for Morris from the absurdist ruminations of his previous two efforts. Irony and quirky experimentation have remained in abundance in his work, but his subsequent documentary endeavors have generally taken on important topics with a seriousness of purpose and mastery that emerged with The Thin Blue Line.
Charles Musser is a professor of film and media studies at Yale University. His seventy-two-minute documentary Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch recently premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.