1988, 101 minutes © The Thin Blue Line – Errol Morris
Its impact as a piece of non-fiction filmmaking, and on the course of events after its release, has been pointed to as a milestone marker for what a documentary can achieve. Like the true crime authors of the 1960s and 1970s who had immersed themselves in their subjects’ narratives, either acting as adversaries or advocates for the people they wrote about, Errol Morris, in The Thin Blue Line, acts as an avenger for the wrongly accused Randall Adams. Rather than focusing on the ‘how’ or the ‘why’ of the crime itself, Morris is interested in the aftermath of the murder—probing such questions as: what went wrong with the investigation? And who, or what should be blamed for this miscarriage of justice? To answer these, Morris introduces a strong critical impulse within the film, carefully juxtaposing scenes and testimonies—much in the manner of the 1950 masterpiece Rashomon (dir. Akira Kurosawa)—all relating information about the same fateful evening, but none quite alike.
Influenced by the aesthetics of the film noir, Morris also makes an extensive use of crime-scene re-enactments to recreate the scene of the murder and expose the discrepancies in the accounts of the witnesses, police, and suspects. Filmed in a style akin to the 1940s fiction movies, with low-key lighting creating high contrast-ratio between the highlights and the shadows, these re-enactments are a way, for Morris, of suggesting that the eyewitnesses’ testimonies are not the whole truth, but merely their subjective versions of the event, as they think it has happened. “Truth,” as Morris argues, “is the central goal, but it is an elusive one. […] You search for truth through investigating endlessly and, if you are lucky, you find something approximating it.” Through the exploration of the inner thoughts of his controversial subjects and the slippery nature of the narratives they produce, Morris engages the viewer in a critical reflection about the meaning and limits of knowledge in the documentary’s quest for truth. As he examines the troubled subjectivity of his ‘protagonists’ and dissects the machinations of their so-called expertise, Morris reveals some of the most harmful and devastating flaws of his subjects’ minds: vanity, self-deception and thoughtlessness.