A Fascinating and Disturbing Film
Apr 10, 2001
Review by Korova
Rated a Very Helpful Review
User Rating: Excellent
Pros:engrossing subject matter, extremely well directed,score, production values, an astounding ending
Cons:one MAJOR flaw - see below
The Bottom Line: You'll be shocked with what policemen, lawyers and judges can get away with, even if you suspected it.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.
Recommend this product?
Sorry to start off on a downer, but there's only one, so let's get it out of the way:
I am sure that if I had seen this movie when it first came out (thirteen years ago), that the names and faces of Randall Adams, David Harris, and various lawyers and witnesses would jump out at me. They wouldn't need any introduction whatsoever. But thirteen years have passed. I only ever heard about `The Thin Blue Line' not `the Randall Adams case.' For people who don't know much about the case, anything up to the first half hour is more than a little confusing. I don't ask for much, but if ever this wonderful documentary is remastered, can we please have captions like `John Citizen, Police Officer in Vidor, Texas' or `Jane Doe, prosecution witness'?
One of the problems that stems from this one flaw is that, unless you already know, it is unclear as to which one is Adams and which is Harris. At the beginning, we don't know that Harris is on death row. I assumed that the one wearing orange was the "guilty" man, Adams. Adams, however, is wearing white, implying innocence.
It distracted me so much that I wasn't sure who was who that I was not totally able to pay close attention to the actual information being given. I worked it out, of course, but no one in the early part of the movie is given an introduction at all, and the only ones who do get an introduction are talked about just before they come on screen.
It's a huge flaw, but the film is good enough to keep that fifth star.
I'm glad that's over, because now I can praise Errol Morris' outstanding work.
`The Thin Blue Line' is an unusual documentary. Most documentaries chronicle someone or an event for a period of time. The point the director wants to make is found during the shooting process, which affects which footage is kept. In this instance, Morris set out to prove that Adams was innocent. If Oliver Stone had made this in the exact same way, he would have been accused of manipulating his audience. Think about it:
A gun is pointed directly at the camera, and Adams comments on how scared that made him feel.
Defence lawyers and witnesses wear blue, and the key prosecution witness wears blood red.
(already mentioned) Adams wears white and Harris orange. (this is because Harris is already on death row, but this does affect the way we look at them)
This is not to say that Morris substitutes emotion for skill. That isn't true. He obviously asked the right questions to get everything out of his interviewees. He quickly became convinced of Adams' innocence, and set out to prove it. The amazing thing is it is so clear that Adams is not guilty. We ask ourselves during the documentary how on earth the Dallas police were prepared to convict an innocent man.
The question is answered for us. I won't give away everything, but a key moment is when the judge of the original trial states that "It's hard to understand why someone would kill a police officer" (apologies if I misquoted). The judge can understand why someone would kill a normal civilian, but a police officer? Why would someone even contemplate it? This is the same judge who reckons he won 10-8 over the supreme court, and who spends the film clearing his conscience.
Getting back to the point of Morris' directorial skill, the re-enactments are terrific. We see the same shots (no pun intended) again and again throughout the film, and it doesn't get repetitive. Because each time they are used, a different question is being asked. What happened? Why didn't the police officer do...? Or something is added: This is when the witnesses drove past. This is how the officer was shot. Almost all faces in the re-enactments are indistinguishable, deliberately. The policeman pointing the gun at Adams is any policeman who ever used threats to get evidence or a confession. It's unclear, except for Harris' and Adams' testimony, who was driving. And when the key witness states that she recognised Adams by his beard, his nose and moustache, we remember that not only did he not have a beard, but we are also shown that it is very difficult to identify anyone on the basis of a nose and moustache.
Of course, proving that Adams is innocent is only half Morris' aim. He delivers a searing indictment of the American justice system. One lawyer has quit jury trials as a result of the original verdict. Another believes that the state wanted the death penalty so badly they were willing to prosecute an adult. The judge refused to allow a great deal of evidence to be entered. It is very easy to say that the justice system is unfair, it is a very different thing to show it and effectively prove it.
One thing that cannot go unmentioned is our reaction to David Harris. Morris doesn't hate him, and neither do we. His revelation at the end (more on that later) is incredible, and he isn't very sorry about it. But we do feel sorry for him at points. Even though we learn he was in the middle of a crime spree, he does not come off as the devil incarnate. This guy is not a cold blooded mass-murderer who'd make a bloodbath for the fun of it. He is a deeply disturbed kid (in 1988), who was basically hated but tolerated by his father. He realises his crimes are attempts to get to his father, but that's all he knows. He has committed terrible crimes, has some understanding why, but does not cease to be human.
Phillip Glass' score is an aspect of this film that is rightfully praised. His music fits wonderfully in the background, but a lot of it is similar-sounding. This means that eventually it becomes unnerving. But it rarely, if ever, comes to the foreground. Re-enactments and, importantly, the gunshots have no music behind them. The music at the beginning sounds gentle, even calming, but listen to it for long enough, and hear some shocking statements as well, and it stirs your emotions.
One of the things not often associated with documentaries is a visual style. Visual motifs and such are usually reserved for fiction, it seems. Errol Morris obviously threw the rulebook out the window for his landmark work. Recurring images of police sirens spinning, guns being drawn, blue cars, newspaper photos, milkshakes being thrown...they add up. And, most significantly, the use of colour. Blue and red are very often contrasted throughout the film. Blood, that spinning siren, Harris' orange uniform, the blue car, walls in the police station.... If anyone ever wanted to know Morris' opinion on the police, they could watch this film with the sound turned down and still know.
One section I have to mention is when Adams is talking about the electric chair. His words, "your eyes pop out, your fingernails pop out, you bleed from every orifice you have" (paraphrased), along with the dispassionate shots of a cold electric chair are a better case against capital punishment than the whole three hours of `The Green Mile' and even `Dead Man Walking.' And the whole thing lasts, what, three minutes? Probably less.
And now, we come to the ending. This segment is shot differently from the rest of the film. Instead of seeing Harris speak, we hear it played on a cassette, while the camera shows different closeups of the recorder. Perhaps Harris didn't want to say it in front of the camera. Perhaps Morris didn't want us to see how he looked when he said it. It would definitely have been manipulative had Harris said it either looking like Satan or with tears in his eyes. It's also likely Morris didn't want to distract us, as now more than ever, the words are most important. A sequence with no real style comes out as the best of the film, as Harris doesn't say "I did it", but admits to the murder. Morris has succeeded admirably in his attack on the justice system, and in proving Randall Adams innocent.
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