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Stunning depiction of a gross miscarriage of justice
DeeNine-217 August 2001
This is an extraordinary documentary in which film maker Errol Morris shows how an innocent man was convicted of murdering a policeman while the real murderer was let off scot free by the incompetent criminal justice system of Dallas, Texas. The amazing thing is that Morris demonstrates this gross miscarriage of justice in an utterly convincing manner simply by interviewing the participants. True, he reenacts the crime scene and flashes headlines from the newspaper stories to guide us, but it is simply the spoken words of the real murderer, especially in the cold-blooded, explosive audio tape that ends the film, that demonstrate not only his guilt but his psychopathic personality. And it is the spoken words of the defense attorneys, the rather substantial Edith James and the withdrawing Dennis White, and the wrongfully convicted Randall Adams that demonstrate the corrupt and incompetent methods used by the Dallas Country justice system to bring about this false conviction. Particularly chilling were the words of Judge Don Metcalfe, waxing teary-eyed, as he recalls listening to the prosecutor's summation about how society is made safe by that "thin blue line" of cops who give their lives to protect us from criminals. The chilling part is that while he is indulging his emotions he is allowing the cop killer to go free and helping to convict an innocent man. Almost as chilling in its revelation of just how perverted and corrupt the system has become, was the report of how a paid psychologist, as a means of justifying the death penalty, "interviewed" innocent Randall Adams for fifteen minutes and found him to be a danger to society, a blood-thirsty killer who would kill again.

This film will get your dander up. How the cops were so blind as to not see that 16-year-old David Harris was a dangerous, remorseless psychopath from the very beginning is beyond belief. He even took a delight in bragging about his crime. As Morris suggests, it was their desire to revenge the cop killing with the death penalty that blinded them to the obvious. They would rather fry an innocent man than convict the real murderer, who because of his age was not subject to the death penalty under Texas law. When an innocent man is wrongly convicted of a murder three things happen that are disastrous: One, an innocent man is in jail or even executed. Two, the real guilty party is free to kill again. And, three, the justice system is perverted. This last consequence is perhaps the worst. When people see their police, their courts, their judges condemning the innocent and letting the guilty walk free, they lose faith in the system and they begin to identify with those outside the system. They no longer trust the cops or the courts. The people become estranged from the system and the system becomes estranged from the people. This is the beginning of the breakdown of society. The Dallas cops and prosecutors and the stupid judge (David Metcalfe), who should have seen through the travesty, are to be blamed for the fact that David Harris, after he testified for the prosecution and was set free, did indeed kill again, as well as commit a number of other crimes of violence.

The beautiful thing about this film is, over and above the brilliance of its artistic construction, is that its message was so clear and so powerful that it led to the freeing of the innocent Randall Adams. Although the psychopathic David Harris, to my knowledge, was never tried for the crime he committed, he is in prison for other crimes and, it is hoped, will be there for the rest of his life. Errol Morris and the other people who made this fine film can pride in these facts and in knowing that they did a job that the Dallas criminal justice system was unable to do.

(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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An astonishing look at the criminal justice system.
mprins27 January 1999
Along with 1996's Paradise Lost, The Thin Blue Line should be mandatory viewing for those who believe that the criminal justice system eventually convicts only the guilty. It is a stark and shocking look at one man behind bars and the truckloads of evidence that point toward his innocence. Documentarian Errol Morris indirectly argues that, at the very least, this evidence should have presented a "reasonable doubt" to the jury, and near the end of the movie, the audience has little choice but to accept his unbelievable findings. And the film ends with a single scene of just a tape recorder and voices that should be recognized as one of the most powerful endings to a movie, ever. A documentary masterpiece.
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One of the Greatest Docs Ever Made
moniker_jones6 November 2005
The last few years have been a golden age for documentaries. For better or worse, Michael Moore and his undeniable ability for manipulating the cinematic medium have brought this endangered genre into theaters and living rooms across the country. Most of today's casual moviegoers are relatively new to the non-fiction feature. In the case of director Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988), one film not only managed to free an innocent man from a lifetime in prison, but it also elicited a confession from the guilty party. After collecting dust on video shelves for over fifteen years, this groundbreaking documentary has finally arrived on DVD.

Unless you're a devout cinephile or a video store clerk, you have probably never heard much about Errol Morris. As a member of the former category, I've been a fan of his since first renting The Thin Blue Line more than a decade ago. As I popped in that dusty VHS cassette and sat back, I relished what many critics and documentary purists had been hotly debating: Morris was taking the genre to exciting new places, whether people liked it or not.

As with all successful movies, a good doc needs a good story. In 1976, Dallas County police officer Robert Wood and his partner were patrolling their district late one night. The two pulled a blue car over to the side of the road, most likely to warn the driver of a busted taillight. Moments later Officer Wood was lying on the ground, fatally wounded by a series of gunshots. His partner quickly ran to his aid, but was unable to accurately retain and recall certain information about the killer's vehicle. Was it a Vega or a Comet? Did the driver have bushy hair or a fur-lined collar? These and many other questions emerged during the rushed investigation to bring the mysterious cop-killer to justice.

The film itself opens more than ten years after the murder took place. Randall Adams, an oddly charismatic good ol' boy sits before the camera, revealing what happened that unfortunate evening in late 1976. He admits to having shared a ride with a young kid named David Harris. The two apparently attended a drive-in double feature, where they both drank beer and smoked marijuana. Shortly thereafter, Adams claims to have been dropped off at his motel for the evening. Meanwhile, Morris shows us the aforementioned David Harris, now in his mid-20s, talking cryptically about that night's events. This real-life Rashomon confronts viewers with several versions of "the truth." It's unclear whether Morris instinctively knew the truth was still out there when he decided to pursue this project, but his previous experience as a private investigator seems to have paid off as we witness his off- camera interrogation of these two men.

Adams, responsible or not, was determined guilty by the courts and sentenced to death. Despite having a police record as long as his shadow, David Harris became the primary witness against Adams in the case. His testimony alone might not have hung Adams, but at the last minute a trio of eyewitnesses to the crime emerged to corroborate his story. In the world of Errol Morris, people are a truly strange lot, and his greatest technique is to simply let his subjects talk and talk until their inherent weirdness becomes painfully evident. Such is the case with the three last-minute witnesses in the Adams case. The more we hear them speak, the greater that uneasy feeling in our stomach and chest becomes. We are bearing witness to a catastrophic miscarriage of justice.

Morris employs a bottomless bag of tricks in this landmark film. While much of the film does rely on the presence of talking heads, he adds other elements to the mix, such as old movie footage, a haunting score by renowned composer Philip Glass, and the granddaddy of documentary no-no's: dramatic re-enactments. The latter tends to be the most challenged aspect of The Thin Blue Line, but Morris uses it fairly and wisely. He tells this twisted tale in ways few people could. A shot of a swaying timepiece or a concession stand popcorn machine suddenly amount to much more than what we're simply seeing on the screen. All of these pieces are being put together, little by little, in the hopes that by the end we will see the bigger picture.

When this movie was released in 1988, it was marketed as a non-fiction film, because the word "documentary" was thought to scare off ticket-buyers. The studio's attempts to pass it off as a murder mystery failed, but the movie made a minor splash once it hit video. It picked up plenty of awards from festivals and critics groups, but the Oscars didn't even bother nominating it. In fact, the Academy didn't so much as nod in Morris' direction until early 2004, when they nominated The Fog of War, his powerful, relevant look at former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. That film and Morris' two previous masterpieces, Mr. Death and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control have been available on DVD for some time. His first three films, Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida, and The Thin Blue Line, were recently made available either individually or in a 3-disc box set. All six of these films are unique, intriguing portals into Mr. Morris' strange universe, which is not so distant from our own. If it's dramatic situations, reality TV, or simply a great movie that you want, look no further than The Thin Blue Line. As one of the greatest documentaries of our time, it is all these things and so much more.

Rating: A
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A simple and matter-of-fact condemnation of a miscarriage of justice
bob the moo15 October 2008
Randall Adams was a drifter who was picked up by runaway teenager David Harris when he ran out of petrol. The two men hang out for a while, drank some beer, went to the movies, smoked some weed. At this point Adams says he went his own way to his motel with his brother, watched TV and went to sleep. Alternatively, Harris says the two men stayed together were stopped by the police when Adams took out a gun and opened fire on a police officer before driving off. This film follows the court case which charged Adams for the murder of a police officer, with the underage Harris (who was ineligible for the death penalty) as one of the main witnesses against him.

I do enjoy a Perry Mason film because, after a solid hour of red herrings and question-marks, it always come down to the big reveal with Mason demanding "isn't it true? ISN'T IT?" as everyone gasps, the guilty confesses on the stand and justice is done. Sadly this is not a documentary but a basic TVM series and what the Thin Blue Line does so effectively is to get passed all our ideas of how justice works from films and presents a near-unquestionable miscarriage of justice. At no point does the "guilty" person get totally exposed (although the suggestion is very clearly there as to who it was) but instead Morris goes after the idea of reasonable doubt (which, if there is any, then the charged should not have been convicted). Starting at the very start of the fateful evening, Morris uses interviews and some reconstructions to tell the story of what happened from various points of view – initially with a focus very much on the events as the courts saw it.

From here he then uses these same contributions to inject a huge amount of doubt into the vast majority of the case for the prosecution. If you want to find it, there are things in here that could be taken as anti-death penalty but for me the film is pro-justice as opposed to anti-anything as it is essentially reinforcing the importance of reasonable doubt. By virtue of doing this, everyone involved looks bad and Morris wisely doesn't need to pick on anybody in particular directly. It is fascinating as a film but I can understand the occasional claim of it being "dull" – I cannot agree with it but I can understand because, in a world where excess is the norm (style, action, violence, opinion) anything that is actually restrained and even handed could be taken as "dull".

This modern moaning aside though, The Thin Blue Line is a well made film that simply and matter-of-factly condemns the justice system as it applied to Randall Adams. One of Morris' best films and worth seeking out.
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If there was ever a hell on earth...
faraaj-130 December 2007
I grew up in a society that strongly believes in the death penalty - a religion injunction based on the Islamic code of justice. I remember being told a story (don't know if its true) of how the US President visited Saudi Arabia and on the last day of his visit he was treated to some public be-headings. When he questioned the morality of it, his host informed him that the handful of criminals punished represented the entirety of the criminal population for the past one year. The moral being that harsh punishments prevent crimes and caring too much about the aggressor leads to high crime rates. I personally lost faith in the prison system many years ago after reading about the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiment findings. A harrowing Australian movie, Ghosts of the Civil Dead made me detest the prison system even more. In recent years Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have left a bad taste in the mouth. So, is the answer really the death penalty and other physical measures that can't be reversed? After seeing The Thin Blue Line I just don't know. This film has really affected me.

An innocent hitch-hiker, and from what I saw in the documentary a decent man, is caught at the wrong time in the wrong place - a former sundown town called Vidor, Dallas County. He is implicated in the murder of a cop and is obviously innocent of the crime. The entire legal system of Vidor is bent to prosecute him. The reason: the real killer is a 16-year old and there's no benefit in finding him guilty because he can't be given the death penalty. Randall Adams, in his 20's, can and must be punished because he's a stranger to these small-minded bigots and someone must pay! Shocking that people can think that way. It makes The Ox-Bow Incident and issues it raised 70 years ago valid even today. This was no more than a judicial lynching.

Fortunately, in this case Randall Adams' case was reopened and he was acquitted and released, in large measure due to this documentary and the scandal it caused. The story is exceedingly well told and the end with the tape recorded last interview with David Harris is chilling. I can't say that after watching this I still have a clear opinion of what punishment should fit a crime, but it has certainly made me question the validity of the mentality present in so many Muslim countries. Who is to say there can be no similar travesty of justice there?
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Rough justice
Lejink12 August 2008
I first saw this film not long after its initial release some 20 years ago and images and scenes from it have stayed with me ever since, so that it was with considerable anticipation that I re-watched it again recently. Down the years I can still recall Randall Adams drawling in his unforgettable voice "The kid scares me", the ever-revolving red light on the cop-car and most of all Philip Glass' wonderful, hypnotic music. The depiction of the fateful night of the cold-blooded murder of the policeman is shown from, almost literally, every possible angle, conveyed in a highly stylised way with almost every speculated remembrance of the doubtful list of every dubious (and are they ever dubious!) witness played out on the screen, the effect, in so doing, to completely explode their fantasist recollections, as was no doubt the director's aim. The reconstructions are set alongside filmed interviews of most of the main protagonists (with the main exception of the second cop in the car who witnessed the killing). As you watch these, the centrepiece clearly becomes the contrasting testimony of the almost-certain murderer David Harris with the wronged Randall Adams, the first coming across from the start as duplicitous and uncaring, the latter as bemused but reasoning. I was particularly taken with the erudition of Adams, who suppresses his inner rage with admirable restraint as he points the viewer time and again back to the evidence. As an indictment of the American criminal justice system, it hits home hard; it appears that investigation standards head for the hills especially when the law has a cop-killer to nail. Thankfully the miscarriage of justice was eventually resolved although it makes you grateful for the coincidence which led director Morris to change the subject course of his original project to instead highlight Adams' case culminating in his release soon after the film was first shown. The film however is more than a crusading documentary and there is much for students and admirers of the film-makers art to enjoy. Unforgettable, really, almost haunting, and proof if needed that truth really is stranger than fiction.
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Innovative Plus
rmax3048237 August 2004
I can imagine a lot of people sort of nodding off at the idea of a "documentary." High schools show too many, on subjects like the life cycle of the loggerhead turtle. I see people snoozing at the thought of yet another educational non-fiction film.

Well, I guess there was a period when they carried a bit more chic than in recent years. Flaherty made some money. And Mondo Cane, of course, if that was a documentary.

But the whole field seems to have been revolutionized lately by Ken Burns and Errol Morris, the former with "The Civil War" series on PBS and the latter with this film. Morris had made an earlier movie, mostly about an animal cemetery, but the subject seems to have had limited popular appeal.

"The Thin Blue Line" however is about the shooting death of a police officer and the subsequent conviction, imprisonment, and death sentence of an innocent man.

The movie really IS innovative. There is no narration, for one thing. For another, the talking heads we see aren't labeled at the bottom of the screen -- "Chester Smith, Accountant at Robbin, Cheatham, and Frisk Law Firm." Instead, Morris shows us close ups of newspaper clippings and other printed materials which just happen to mention the name of the person we are about to be introduced to. It's a small thing, true, but I can't recall the device's ever having been used before. It's unobtrusive and effective. (That's the sort of thing I mean when I call this film "innovative".) The events are restaged and presented again and again from different points of view, the whole being carefully constructed, like a jigsaw puzzle, but a jigsaw puzzle for children, easy to comprehend.

And it's easy to see why Morris latched on to this topic. Not only is it interesting per se, an investigation into the justice system in Texas, in which almost all the authority figures seem intent on extinguishing forfeited lives, but the actual performers we see on screen are remarkably at ease in the presence of the camera. They smile conspiratorially, practically winking at the camera. They look dramatically towards heaven and say things like, "It's crazy." But all in a pleasant Texas drawl. Nobody gets excited. Nobody breaks down and sobs. (There's innovation for you!) Nobody get angry and shouts at the camera. It's all very smooth.

But although the performances are good, they are still performances. No one seems to admit having made a mistake. Everyone enters his house justified. Randall Adams, the innocent guy who was railroaded into the slams because he was 28 years old and could therefore be given the death penalty, has been in jail long enough to know what he's about when he presents his case. He has a practiced, wounded appearance and manner, although he describes his experiences as if they happened to somebody else. You pick up things in jail, along with the tattoos. David Harris, the actual perp, smiles and shrugs disarmingly, and he keeps saying "I guess" and "whatever." As cool as an ice cube in Sweetwater. He is, in fact, a textbook-perfect example of what used to be called a psychopath. He's pleasant looking, charming, and utterly without any conscience.

In some ways the most interesting character is the spaced-out blonde who claims to have eyewitnessed the killing and identifies Adams as the murderer in court. She's the most interesting because her motives are the most obscure. Everyone else's goals are clear. Adams wants to save his neck. The prosecutor wants another conviction. But this babe is really something.

She's constructed an old TV detective program with herself as the central figure.

Two additional points. One is that the psychiatrist known as "Doctor Death" spent only 15 minutes with Adams in prison before testifying that Adams was an incurable murderer. I'm laughing as I write this. Anyway, Dr. Death gave Adams two tests. The first, which Adams describes as a lot of circles and squiggly lines, is the Bender Gestalt Test which was originally designed to measure brain damage. In the second part of the examination, Adams is asked to explain the meaning of a couple of adages. "A rolling stone gathers no moss," for example. It used to be thought that schizophrenics were given to "concrete thinking" and that they had trouble reasoning abstractly enough to interpret these old sayings. It's not used anymore. One thing always bothered me about it anyway. One of the items is "A new broom sweeps clean", and I could never figure out EXACTLY what that was supposed to mean.

The second point is that Adams was given a new trial and released after this film was shown. In other words, Errol Morris saved Randall Adam's life, which would otherwise have been spent in prison. So what does Adams do after he's out of prison? He sues Errol Morris for having taken advantage of him! In TV interviews explaining his suit, Adams uses exactly the same bewildered expressions and gestures of helplessness that he does in this film. At least those eleven years weren't a complete waste of time because he obviously learned something, or whatever.
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Subject matter vs. presentation
FilmOtaku7 September 2004
Having seen two other Errol Morris documentaries, I expected that there would be a Philip Glass soundtrack, some flashy camera work, and perhaps some reenactments during 'The Thin Blue Line'. I have long struggled with my opinions on Morris' work, mainly because I am more of a purist when it comes to documentaries. I want to see footage, photographs, interviews, etc. that are going to back up a strong story, not a lot of camera angles, stark white backgrounds, and a post-modernist score.

'The Thin Blue Line' had the latter presentation, so I immediately was slightly turned off – until the subject of the film was presented. The location is Dallas, and it is the 1970's. Late one night, a squad car pulls over a car that does not have its lights on, but as soon as the policeman reaches the driver's side door, he is shot several times and murdered. The car pulls away before the policeman's partner is able to ascertain the license plate number or even the exact make and model of the vehicle. What follows is a veritable witch hunt for the killer (or killers) that ends with one man in jail who is professing his innocence, and another man, a career criminal who gets away veritably scot-free. Through various interviews with the players involved; detectives, alleged eye-witnesses, the accused themselves, Morris seeks to find out the truth in a case that comes down to a 'he-said/he-said' situation.

'The Thin Blue Line' is expert film-making in the investigative sense. Morris does his job in presenting as many facts as possible. The case finally came to a head a couple of years after the film was finished, but it is documented as being instrumental in the reexamination of the facts. I still don't necessarily care for Morris' style, but it cannot be argued that 'The Thin Blue Line' is an excellent documentary, and that he definitely has an eye for picking very compelling subjects.

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Into The Thin Blue Line Of Fire
Lechuguilla25 February 2007
And thus, Dallas County, Texas, in 1977, successfully prosecuted Randall Dale Adams, a lowly hitchhiker, for a crime Adams did not commit.

Adams was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1976 murder of a Dallas cop. "The Thin Blue Line", by Errol Morris, is a documentary that recounts this infamous case, by way of interviews and reenactments. It's the story of a terrible injustice, one that almost cost an innocent man his life.

What is so frightening is the fervor of Dallas officials to inflict the death penalty on someone ... anyone ... They weren't about to let the cop murder go unpunished. Adams was the most convenient target. Eventually, the truth would come out. But Adams would spend twelve years in prison, some of those years on death row. After his release, Adams never received any monetary compensation, or even an apology, from the State Of Texas, for that injustice. Interestingly, more than one Dallas County official associated with the Adams case was also associated with the aftermath of the JFK assassination, thirteen years earlier.

Morris' documentary would have been easier to follow had it had subtitles, to indicate the name of the person being interviewed. Also, some of the film's material consisted of irrelevant flashback footage and repetitive reenactments. Further, the narrative presentation was at times confusing. Nevertheless, the main issue here is the powerful true-life story.

If you can get around the technical weaknesses of this film, "The Thin Blue Line" is a gripping documentary about a real life case of American injustice, in a city that is notorious for its history of botched criminal investigations.
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rbloom33329 November 2008
A stunning documentary by Errol Morris which was absurdly written off as "pseudo-journalism," and "overly-subjective," by the critics at the time. Morris makes no pretense of being "objective," with his topic; in fact, the actual topic of the film is subjectivity. A man is convicted for murder in Texas on extremely thin evidence but the opaque wheels of justice simply crank him into death row without a second thought. Morris worked as an investigative journalist in uncovering the man's innocence, made the film, and eventually got his conviction overturned because of its persuasiveness. Scenes of the crime are reconstructed and dramatized by Morris to fill in the point of view of the interviewee (not to demonstrate the truth), and the film gradually and compellingly puts together the missing fragments of the case, and turns truth on its backside. This is a brilliant documentary, and I'm not employing hyperbole when I say it is the In Cold Blood of the cinematic form.
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Great documentary experience
letrias21 August 2002
Regarding the issue of manipulation, lets face it people, all documentaries are manipulative - every documentary filmmaker is attempting to make a point, whether or not they care to admit it. It is the documentaries that give the impression of being "objective" that are, in fact, the most manipulative. In the case of "The Thin Blue Line" the purpose of the documentary is clear, and the viewer is not tricked into believing that they are watching something objective. Instead, it is quite upfront about its purpose, and therefore is a much more honest piece of work. People should never accept anything they see in a documentary as fact, it's important to understand that documentaries are simply an attempt to present the director's perspective of a real-life situation. It is the great documentaries that present their perspective in a convincing manner, and do so without boring the viewer to sleep. Here "The Thin Blue Line" succeeds very well: it is powerful, it is engaging, and it's extremely convincing. Does that mean that everyone should be convinced? Lets hope not. However, it certainly should give everyone something to think about.

The only real problem with the film is its over-use of re-enactments where they are not really that necessary. For example, there is an image of a clock, representing the futility of time, which is too long for its own good. The milkshake scene was also (intentionally)annoying. However, this is a minor problem, and not one that should bother most people. Overall: great film, and highly recommended.
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What's the Truth?
Rindiana13 December 2010
Apart from the fact that this investigative crime documentary freed a wrongly sentenced man from prison, which is astonishing in itself, the pic is very solidly crafted, indeed. Morris gets the viewer deeply immersed into the obscurely working wheels of justice.

But the story itself is so strong, one almost oversees some formal flaws along the road. The almost constant soundtrack, as good as it is, gets rather annoying. The restaged scenes with actors look slightly amateurish. And the focus on the case itself prevents more general, profound thoughts on all the issues at hand to surface.

Still, it's a well-made doc anyway.

7 out of 10 unreliable witnesses
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A master class of documentary film making
minister_of_silly_walks1 February 2019
"The Thin Blue Line" recounts the infamous case of Randall Dale Adams, convicted to a death penalty for a crime he didn't commit. It tells a griping story of a man's struggle to prove he is innocent and the fight against real life American injustice presented in a documentary never seen before or since. A must watch for any amateur sleuth, film fan or aspiring film director.
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Justice: Denied
tieman6428 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" documents the 1976 murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. David Harris, a young drifter, was initially arrested for the crime, but later testified that another man, Randall Adams, was actually responsible for the murder. Adams claimed to know nothing about the murder. Local authorities believed Harris, however, and Adams was eventually charged and given the death sentence. As the film begins, Adams has been in jail for 11 years, and Harris is serving time for an unrelated crime.

Using dramatic reconstructions and many eye-witness testimonies, Morris' documentary dives headlong into the case. It's a "Rashomon" styled parade of conflicting testimonies and overlapping subjective viewpoints, the truth of the murder murky and shapeless, until things begin to focus. When the crime begins to coalesce, a pitiful picture begins to take shape: rampant police corruption led to Adams being falsely convicted, Harris emerges as a juvenile psychopath, police incompetence is exposed, scapegoats are exonerated, corroborating evidence and testimonies are undermined, the moral character of lawyers, psychiatrists, law enforcement officers and expert witnesses is called into question, and even the testimonies of regular civilians are seen to be wholly biased, easily swayed by personal desires for money and fame. The film's point: trust no one, test the gods, and keep probing until you find the truth.

"The Thin Blue Line" was well received when it released in the late 1980s, but it would be a number of years before its influence on the documentary genre would become apparent. Morris' dramatic reconstructions of the crime – filmed in nightmarish, noirish hues and resemblant of a David Lynch film - talking heads, and overall aesthetic/approach would give rise to an entire documentary industry, influencing countless TV crime docs, court TV stations and investigative programmes. Adding weight to Morris' visuals is a mounting, powerful score by Philip Glass, which pulls portentously down on the picture like a hang man's noose.

Still, for a film purporting to "search for the truth", "The Thin Blue Line" is at times a thin work. Suspicious holes in Adams' memory are skirted over, and though the film places human faces on those ignored men and women who live on the fringes of society, either economically or psychologically, too little effort is put into delving into the lives of these characters. Subsequent writing on Harris (who has since been executed), for example, has demonstrated that he too was a victim, alcoholic and suicidal at the mere age of 11, and condemned to live with a violently abusive family. Also missing from the film is any trace of homosexuality, any trace of the psycho-sexual confusion these two men were experiencing and any understanding how their marginalization may have affected their sexuality. Indeed, psychopaths (both sexes tend to find psychopaths notoriously charming and sexy) are disproportionately bisexual, and many journalists and writers have since claimed that a bisexual or sexually confused Harris rejected Adams' sexual advances on the night of the murder, and that Adams is himself homosexual. But such avenues aren't explored in the film, nor are there any hints that Adams' sexuality played a role in the police convicting him (Texas was, and still is, renowned for its "Gay Persecution Laws").

Still, "The Thin Blue Line" is primarily interested in police corruption, and along these lines it works well. Morris makes it clear that the police failed to follow up on certain evidence merely because such evidence conflicted with the outcome they wanted to achieve. In other words, the police, like all human beings, engage in rationalizations, and tend to work backwards from their preconceived notions or expectations. Today, experts estimate that about ten thousand people in the US are wrongfully convicted of serious crimes each year (which is roughly between 5 and 14 percent of all convictions). Sixty four percent of the people exonerated of serious crimes had been misidentified (usually erroneous cross-racial identifications), fifteen percent had false confessions forced out of them, and 44 percent were subject to prosecution witnesses committing perjury. For a similar, and arguably better documentary covering this same topic, see "Murder on a Sunday Morning".

8/10 – Though an influential and haunting documentary, time and countless imitators have rendered "The Thin Blue Line" somewhat slow and repetitive. Worth one viewing.
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A film that can really, really make you angry
zetes16 July 2001
The Thin Blue line shows how wrong our legal system is here in the US. Trials are run not as a celebration of justice but as a purveyor of revenge. Prosecuting attorneys are not men who believe in doing what's right, but what will most successfully add to their reputation. A psychologist testifies against over 99% of those criminals he interviews so that they will get the death penalty. The police choose to believe a juvenile delinquent's testimony against a man who has never done anything majorly illegal in his life just because they cannot send a 16 year old to the chair, and they cannot fail to execute someone over the death of a police officer. Every single police officer and witness who had anything to do with the trial was discreditable, yet no discrediting evidence was ever allowed in the court. You may have guessed that this all takes place in Texas.

Even with the power it carries, The Thin Blue Line has some structural problems. I wish that we had been given some more information on Randall Adams (although maybe there just wasn't too much to say). And I wish that we would have been able to hear the "thin blue line" closing argument of the prosecuting attorney, a speech that made the judge's eyes water. If you like this film, search out Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, a documentary obviously inspired by this. That one is a little more convincing and powerful than The Thin Blue Line (although this one apparently helped to get Adams off the hook; of course, with the amount of evidence that the film amassed, it is difficult to let the man rot without one more chance).
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Excellent documentary, problematic presentation
Nikos720 November 2000
You can read all the positive comments about this documentary from other users. Yet, I have one major disagreement, although it's been a long time since I watched it. It seems to me that the director has done no real effort of presenting his excellent material in the way that it deserves to be presented. For example, there are almost no subtitles and you have trouble remembering who's talking about what in each scene. Other than that, it should be remembered and noticed that this documentary was crucial in the release of the wrongfully imprisoned and convicted man it portrays.
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Texas Justice
view_and_review18 July 2020
"Thin Blue Line" is an early and extended version of "Forensic Files." The biggest difference is that "Forensic Files" focuses on the evidence used to catch a criminal whereas "Thin Blue Line" focused on evidence to exonerate a man falsely accused. Anyone not familiar with "Forensic Files," there's a narrator who recaps important points of the case along with interviews with important people to the case and some reenactment. "Thin Blue Line" had everything but the narrator.

If the justice system has fingered you as the culprit it is usually very hard to prove your innocence. Randall Adams found that out first hand. He was accused of killing a cop in Dallas in cold blood. There was very little evidence to tie him to the crime, but law enforcement saw to it that they got enough to convince a jury of his guilt.

The documentary isn't riveting by any means, and it's really a wonder why this case of who-knows-how-many was chosen for a documentary when there were probably far more egregious cases of injustice out there. Still, the documentary is good, especially for anyone concerned with the halls of justice.
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Riveting. Haunting. Necessary.
roblesar998 August 2017
There's no understating the importance of documentarian Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line. The documentary focuses on the November 1976 shooting death of Dallas police officer Robert Wood and his accused murderer Randall Dale Adams, who maintained his innocence throughout the duration of his trial and jail sentence. The trial itself was plagued with inconsistent statements from witnesses, but ultimately Adams was sentenced to death. Were it not for the Supreme Court case Adams v. Texas, which resulted in Texas Governor Bill Clements commuting Adams' sentence to life in prison, Adams would have been executed on May 8, 1979. Morris' documentary, however, single-handedly resulted in a review of Adams' case and he was subsequently exonerated for the crime a year after the film's release.

Morris first came up with the idea for The Thin Blue Line while conducting research on Dr. James Grigson, known as Doctor Death, a psychologist whose testimony resulted in over 100 trials ending with a death sentence. But when Morris interviewed Adams in regards to Adams' experience with Grigson during his trial, Adams stated that he had been framed for Wood's murder. He told Morris that the murderer was actually David Harris, a sixteen-year-old drifter with whom Adams had spent the day with before heading back to his hotel a few hours before the shooting. Morris' dedication to bringing Adams' plight to the screen shows throughout the entirety of the feature. As the film presents the facts of the case, we listen to various interviewees, from detectives to lawyers to witnesses to Adams and Harris themselves, who all speak directly into the camera. The decision to have them face directly into the camera creates a disquieting feeling, forcing the audience to listen to their perspective and preventing them from becoming passive viewers.

Indeed, Morris further forces his audience to be an active participant through his repetitive use of re-enactments that depict the shooting. Each time a piece of information is introduced that happens to contradict previously stated information, we once again watch the re- enactment of the shooting, which has now been tweaked to fit the most recent info. Morris forces the audience into deciphering the increasingly blurred line between fact and fiction as he presents the changing evidence from different angles. The depiction of the shooting using differing information from an array of conflicting witnesses reminded me of Rashomon. And just like Kurosawa, Morris finds himself exploring the idea of justice and how a crime can warp the perception of the truth.

Morris' film also functions as an indictment of America's criminal justice system. It becomes painfully clear that the reason why Adams was ultimately convicted of the crime despite his innocence had to do with the fact that Harris could not be given the death penalty because he was underage. To hear that Doctor Death purposefully testified in over one hundred cases, including Adams', solely to recommend the death penalty serves as a stark, haunting reminder of the willingness of those in charge to favor death over rehabilitation. While I'm sure that some of the criminals that Adams deemed incurable sociopaths, who he was "one hundred percent certain" would kill again, would do so were they free, it's disturbing to think about how many of them fully deserved the death penalty rather than a lighter punishment.

As a hometown Dallas resident, I couldn't help but smile when the film began, showcasing the Dallas skyline shining in all its glory. But over the next hour and a half, I was utterly transfixed by the cases of Randall Adams and David Harris, and the murder of Robert Wood. To think about how many other innocent men and women might be wrongfully imprisoned definitely makes for an unnerving thought. Morris' The Thin Blue Line makes for haunting yet necessary viewing, challenging seemingly established facts in the murder of Wood on that fateful November night. Mixing Philip Glass' incredible score, re-enactments of the murder, and a captivating array of interviews, the film not only makes for a riveting deconstruction of a heinous crime, but an exploration of justice in an unjust system that resulted in the exoneration of an innocent man.

Rating: 8/10 (Great)
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food for thought
calneto27 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I rated the movie as excellent, but this is irrelevant, given that it actually helped to free an innocent man wrongfully imprisoned.

The movie sheds some light in what the 'wheels of justice' are like. At least in 1976 Dallas.

To me there are two main aspects to what happened. There must have been an initial motive to go after Randall Adams instead of David Harris, and then, once he was made the main suspect, there had to be some explanation to why he is convicted, despite almost everything pointing in the other direction.

Adams was 28, whereas lil' David was 16. The movie pointed out that this would've been enough, since only Adams was eligible for death. In addition, and perhaps more important, David was from Vidor, Texas, whereas Adams was from out of state.

There is something else that, even though is never talked about, must have been in people's minds.

I first thought it hard to understand why a 28 year old would spend an evening with a 16 year old. Moreover, after it was clear that David had guns and even had shot some rounds in the air, Adams still goes with him to a drive-in movie, which included a soft-core feature (albeit a heterosexual one). They also talk about the possibility of David spending the night in the same hotel, which does not materialize because Adams' brother did not like 'those things'. Even after this is made clear, David still hangs around a bit, and Adams, leaning on the car, says he can help out, and offers to try to get him a job. Some viewers believed Adams was in the car during the shooting (because the story about the rounds shot in the air?). No witness claims to have seen two people in the car. David, however, says he slid in his seat when the officer came to the car. This would put him in a rather awkward position, if you follow my thoughts. It's hard to gauge how important this was, but I'd take a wild guess that Dallas is not exactly a gay-friendly city.

As for how this eventually only got worse, a few things caught my attention. The prosecutor's perfect record was not to be stained by this case; the first female officer on duty was not to have such a bad start, despite her obvious incompetence; and finally the life of a (texan) 16 year old boy was not to be ruined, as put by one of the police officers, even though he was the obvious suspect. Unfortunately, as Adams himself hints at, these have nothing to do with who was actually likely to have committed the crime.

At some point in the movie, an officer makes the remark that never had it taken so long for a cop-killing to be resolved. One can only wonder how many similar stories didn't make it to the big screen.

As a closing remark, I found Adams' interpretation of 'a rolling stone gathers no moss' a bit weird. As for all those on the prosecution's side:

Dum excusare credis, accusas
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Grows and grows on you
Pamsanalyst23 September 2004
We watch a lot of American Justice and their ilk in this house. Every episode Bill Kurtis or whoever leads us through the case to his expected result. Then we saw this on IFC one evening. The Lack of narration, the compelling music, the repetitive recreations of the scene and most of all, the faces and voices: Adams' 'plain Jane' attorney, her colleague who handled Adams' appeal, the small town cop, the judge comparing his grade in state versus Federal Supreme Court...all of these people speaking out to us, building or tearing down a case that grows in our minds, especially when the real killer begins to talk. A powerful experience not to be missed.
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Quite interesting, very compelling
thomaswatchesfilms21 October 2003
One of the scariest films I have ever seen. Under the right set of circumstances, this could happen to you. This film goes a long way toward explaining why the governor of Illinois commuted over 100 death sentences to life in prison. Aside from that, it's a good documentary, with great editing and an awesome Philip Glass soundtrack.
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A clear indication for just how corrupt the law really is
Agent109 May 2002
Errol Morris does a magnificent job in what I believe is his best documentary. Wonderfully shot and conceptualized, this is more like the greatest Unsolved Mysteries episode ever. Even though the film was virtually all interviews, it really brings out the quirks and the trivial natural of eyewitness reports. Its also a moment frozen in time, a time when racism still shaped the judicial system and the good old boy system extended further than politics. The score by Phillip Glass was also amazing. There are so many little indicators of the individual's personalities within the film, sometimes it appears comical or scary. Quite an achievement for a film which is so confined and claustrophobic.
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Surprisingly powerful documentary
lannaheim26 January 2002
Beautiful. Stark. Thoughtful. Painful. Compelling. I have a sort of Draconian view of capital punishment (a life for a life doesn't bother me). However, I read about this situation in, I think, The New Yorker, and this film really makes the dilemma real.
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Gripping, stunning film making
mchevrette23 August 2003
I remember seeing this when it was first released and walking out thanking god I was a free man and not caught in the wheels of justice. How could an innocent man be sitting in jail while I walked to my car to head home to sleep? Maybe some of that power and emotion is diluted now, or maybe it's even stronger since this film resulted in the release of Randal Adams, but as a documentary is should be required viewing for all film students and social studies classes.

One more footnote - shame on the Academy Awards for not even nominating this for best documentary.
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The stylish anti-verite documentary.
Paul-41224 March 2000
Errol Morris has constructed a film here that defies all traditional aesthetics once held dear to documentaries. Morris is a filmmaker who is said to have despised all verite and as a result has abandoned all characteristics attributed to that style. Specifically, there is no feel of spontaneity or immediacy in his films, absolutely no hand-held shots, and no presenting of extra information. You can tell there is not a shooting ratio of 150-200:1 as with say a typical Frederick (High School) Wiseman film. It is precisely this rejection which makes The Thin Blue Line so compelling.

The Thin Blue Line is a documentary about the wrongful arrest and subsequent conviction of a man whom hitched a ride with the wrong man at the wrong time. His story is told through a series of interviews, including one from the jailed man himself, inter-cut throughout various reenactments of the disputed crime. Morris presents us with a very dark film filled with high contrast lighting and cool blues which give all the subjects a pale look. It is, however, with the reenactments that this documentary stands out. Morris's use of slow-motion photography, close ups, and editing focuses your attention on specific aspects of the crime scene as well as the aesthetic value of these traditionally narrative tools.

This film's most impressive aspect is the haunting score by Phillip Glass, which immediately encapsulates you from the first second we are introduced to Dallas, Texas. The score tends to play out during reenactments and through crucial aspects of the interviews which narrow our attention to the message of the film. This score can put you into a kind of trance which makes you completely open to manipulation.

It is this manipulation however which reminds you of the limitations of the narrative documentary. We are absolutely told what to think about the people (police and witnesses) whom do not support the claims of the jailed man. Morris intended to make a film about the wrongful conviction of this man and any of the interviewees who got in the way of that were either trivialized or their stories were manipulated as to only present arguments of the innocence of this man. But who cares, of course we are being manipulated by the narrative structure, it is still damned compelling.
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