The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Dir. Errol Morris

Colloquially, it’s the documentary that released an innocent man from prison; it’s one of those cases about art both affecting and effecting life, sort of the reverse of Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr. being inspired by Nashville or Taxi Driver.  That Randall Dale Adams could be freed from his life sentence (after having it reduced from the death penalty by the United States Supreme Court) largely because of a movie that Errol “dead pets documentary” Morris made about him is a 20th Century moment as much as a moon landing or the assembly line. The mere facsimile of a man’s face and voice on a screen, and the facsimiles of faces and voices of other men and women’s voices, can take a man out of his jail cell and into the world again. And it didn’t begin with photographic evidence brought to a courtroom, but as an entertainment venture, for profit, sponsored by the greatest film talker-upper of recent times, Harvey Weinstein. What a world, right?

In 2016, the film represents something a little bit different. The story of the shocking murder of a police officer by an unknown civilian, and the case of mistaken identity that follows, is salacious enough for a Netflix miniseries and a hashtag. Officer Wood’s body cam, if this had happened forty years later, would have shown that David Harris shot him from the get-go, and Randall Dale Adams would have slept through the night with visions of the Carol Burnett Show dancing in his head. Maybe there would have been a Vine. Who knows. But what is remarkable now is not the power of a film to give someone his freedom. We are too used to reversals of opinion brought to us by the media. Today, one circles back to “the thin blue line.” Naming the film after law enforcement is not unlike a sock of dimes in the kidneys. It is, first of all, a little ironic. One can only feel pity for Robert Wood and his family – no one suggests we should feel otherwise, and no one should. Wood’s partner, Teresa Turko, also elicits some sympathy. It is fairly obvious from the evidence that people provide that she was not doing her duty; she could not have prevented Wood’s death regardless of her position, or if she had called an ambulance rather than firing her service revolver at the car speeding away, but at least procedure would have been on her side. In a disciplined profession, a failure of procedure is a black mark forever. The film makes a point of noting that Turko was one of the first woman police officers in Dallas to be assigned to patrol. At the high water mark of the ERA, it hurts to see that Turko, in her male dominated profession, falls short of expectations. And one can hardly be surprised that she was either bullied by her superiors, or chose to alter her testimony before the trial, to make it more hostile to Adams. She is less sympathetic than Wood or Adams, for sure, but still deserving of our goodwill.

It’s not the cops on patrol, the actual thin blue line (if such a line actually exists, and it takes little imagination to recognize that it doesn’t), that gains our scorn. It’s the Dallas detectives and plainclothesmen like Dale Holt and Gus Rose, who are both thoroughly smug about Adams’ guilt despite the fact that they should have seen his innocence right away; it’s the judicial representatives of Dallas County, like Judge Donald J. Metcalfe and D.A. Douglas Mulder, who function as the real villains. This is all the more impressive because Metcalfe’s interviews are amiable and conversational, and Mulder doesn’t even appear. (Interestingly, Sam Kittrell of Vidor, who has far more experience with David Harris than anyone else in the film, is granted far more personhood than any of the Dallas-based cops.) So the thin blue line protects us from anarchy, as Mulder says; even if you grant that statement, what thin colored line protects us from order with the same ferocity that the thin blue line protects against anarchy?

Order, according to Adams’ attorneys and Adams himself, wanted Adams to go to the chair largely because he could, unlike Harris, get death. Order is the pressure the Dallas police feel from higher-ups and the community to find a cop killer. Order is the undefeated record of Douglas Mulder. Order is the testimony of James Grigson, whose life’s work was to “discover” sociopaths who absolutely commit crimes again. Order is about creating certainties and following through on those certainties to a murderous extent.

Every profession is sanctimonious, largely as a result of the external pressure it faces. Every teacher is convinced there is an assault on the profession, and some of them aren’t paranoid; every professor is convinced that there is an assault on that profession, and a few of them have more right to complain than the classroom teachers. (See that sanctimony? Guess what I do for a living.) Every nurse is flustered with the demands of life and death being placed on top of the demands of comfort and perfectionism. Every person in a service industry, from hotels to fast food to restaurants to human resources, is certain that s/he is being eaten alive by customers who neither understand nor care what it takes to do a good job. Every police officer and soldier feels strongly that s/he needs a gun to protect life. Every lawyer and judge is sure that justice, like the Force, needs them as a conduit. There are also mothers and fathers, and that doesn’t need explaining. Our professional sanctimony is a form of narcissism that we all indulge in. No one is appreciated enough. Maybe appreciating the work that others do as much as we appreciate our own work is something we need to work on, so to speak.

What makes The Thin Blue Line especially effective as a force against legal sanctimony is that sanctimony only works when it’s justified. This is why the Blue Lives Matter “movement,” which is a movement in the same way that Bull Connor’s cops constituted a movement, is noxious. No one has ever disputed the tragedy of a police officer killed, or even injured, in the line of duty. Of course police serve an integral public function, even if you don’t believe that their existence keeps us from descending into mob rule. But the sanctimony of “Blue Lives Matter more than Black Lives,” which is of course the underlying message, is what’s too grotsky to bear. That’s the difference between cops and teachers/nurses/fry cooks these days; the teachers and nurses and fry cooks aren’t fanning the flames of a race war and calling it a renaissance of justice. (“not all cops,” btw)

The sanctimony of the four middle-aged white guys and the middle-aged white prosecutor and the middle-aged white judge who convicted the late-twenties white guy with the big hair is especially wearing. Each one of them is so certain that he has helped to buoy the thin blue line by just a few inches, when in fact they have chopped into the credibility of law enforcement generally. How could anyone in Dallas County think, “Oh good, Marshall Touchton or Jackie Johnson or Dale Holt is on this one. Remember his role in the Adams case? And how right he got it?” The only cop who seems to recognize his limitations, again, is Sam Kittrell, who is technically outside the Adams case anyway. Kittrell can recognize that David Harris is, under some circumstances, as dangerous as a rabid dog, even if Kittrell’s own dealings with him were marked by “cordiality.” No one in the Dallas police department seems prepared to hold two contradictory impressions in their mind.

This is not to say that police officers shouldn’t make mistakes. They are as entitled as any teacher or nurse or fry cook to do that. But their mistakes carry more weight, simply because they control lives in the way that teachers and fry cooks – and potentially, even nurses – just don’t. And if they want a prize, a reward for the benign narcissism that infects how we think of our own jobs, when they catch a crook or interdict some crime, then they have to own when they’re wrong with the humility that balances pride.

The Thin Blue Line is a story of randomness. Randall Adams picked a short straw from a massive hand; it seems as likely that he could have been the star of a documentary about getting hit by lightning or getting mauled by a shark. It also exposes a mindset about maintaining cause and effect. The cause is a murdered police officer; the effect is an executed man. The process, for the police of Dallas County, doesn’t require a guilty party, but merely a blood sacrifice.

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