The Thin Blue Line

yesterdocs

The Thin Blue Line.  Third Floor Productions 1988.
The Thin Blue Line. Third Floor Productions 1988.

Before watching the movie:

I understand that this has reenactments. Originally, I was thinking of the technique of historical documentaries putting actors in appropriate dress and marching across a battlefield, sitting at a desk writing, or talking in a group, basically silent illustrations for a narration to play over. But I’m starting to wonder if it’s more like a traditional dramatization, just mixed in with the documentary.

I find the idea of the latter an interesting mix, but kind of disappointing to think that half of my doc selections are more fabricated than a documentary should be.

After watching the movie:

In October 1976, 28-year old Randall Adams ran out of gas and accepted a ride in 16-year old David Harris’s stolen car. The two of them spent the day together, drinking and smoking pot. That night, a Dallas police officer on a routine traffic stop was suddenly, unexpectedly, and excessively gunned down by the driver of the stopped, stolen vehicle. When the investigation found Harris, he admitted several crimes but testified that Adams had been driving the car and firing the weapon. Adams said they had already parted ways, though he couldn’t account for some time on the road, which the police read as a “convenient blackout”.  Adams was sentenced to death for the murder of the policeman. Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.

I was right the first time about the reenactments. It was revolutionary at the time, but if it hadn’t been commented upon, I wouldn’t have noticed, because that’s a thing that documentaries do now. They are however, somewhat abstracted. The facts include a confusion between cars, and the visuals take on some artful cinematography to underscore the confusion where most documentaries might just show a side by side or simple cut between the two examples. Additionally, elements are as isolated as the illustration can get away with, which means that unless a setting is specifically invoked, an object will probably be photographed against a black background. I see this as an acknowledgement of the artifice where other reenactments are simply trying to illustrate what happened in a way that doesn’t draw enough attention to demand scrutiny.

The pace is slow, but I feel that just underscores the uncertain mood. The director has an answer in mind, but the general thrust is less “but this is what really happened probably” and more “there’s no way to be certain of anything other than this was a miscarriage of justice”.  The end of the story isn’t even part of the movie, because the movie is part of the end of the story.

The end of the movie is perhaps the best example of what a documentary can do that a scripted film may not be able to get away with. Narratively, perhaps it undermines some of what the movie was trying to do, but cinematically, one thing I believe about the way to make a film is that in a work of fiction, the filmmaking should be hidden. There is no recording equipment visible unless there’s a reason within the fiction for it to be. There’s no such limitation for a documentary, because there’s no fiction denying the existence of the equipment to preserve. And so the last moments are from an interview that, due to technical difficulties, could not be captured on camera, only on an audio tape. In order to fill the visuals, the director just puts the camera on a tape player, from varied angles to keep it interesting. The result, combined with the content of the interview, is I think more beautifully chilling than a talking head would ever be, granted by the impersonal nature of the tape player simply doing what it was made to do.

The problem with pioneering a popular technique is that it becomes mundane in retrospect. Even by today’s standards, this is a well-put together film, and might even be exceptional on that score. But part of its legend is that it did something new, that made the story accessible in a way nobody had seen before. And that must have been remarkable in the day. But I wouldn’t have noticed on my own now. I’m glad others said something.

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