Friday, March 04, 2016

Line Item

Essays and think pieces about Netflix's Making a Murderer continue to pop up all over the internet. Often mentioned in passing are earlier examples of the "wrongful conviction documentary," like the first season of the Serial podcast, and the Paradise Lost series. And with reverence, some mention what many consider to be the granddaddy of the sub-genre, The Thin Blue Line.

Made in 1988 by filmmaker Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line looks at the Texas case of Randall Adams, imprisoned for the murder of a police officer. It's a case with no physical evidence and highly questionable eyewitness accounts. Adams was nevertheless convicted, primarily because (as the documentary argues) the only other viable suspect was 16 years old and therefore ineligible for the death penalty -- and forces of "justice" really wanted to take someone's life in exchange for the murdered officer.

Watching The Thin Blue Line today is surely nothing like the experience of seeing it in 1988 would have been, for so many reasons. For one, now that we have the other true crime stories I mentioned earlier, the case presented here seems shockingly simple. After you've seen Paradise Lost reveal evidence ignored at trial, heard Serial devote an entire episode to a single alternative suspect, or seen Making a Murderer systematically cast doubt on each piece of the prosecution's evidence, you expect more twists in the case of Randall Adams. But all it really boils down to is: Adams' story is a perfectly unconvincing blend of bizarre and routine, stacked against the testimony of four witnesses all with motives to either lie or overstate their certainty. No DNA, fibers, ballistics (in part because this murder occurred in the 70s). No nothing.

Another difference is that the ultimate outcome of this case is known. I suppose the same would be true for anyone who watched Paradise Lost today; I myself watched those films while appeals were still being pursued. But unlike Serial or Making a Murderer, cases that don't really have an "ending" as a fictional story would, you're a quick Google search away from finding out if Randall Adams was released or died in prison. I suppose it's no surprise that a decades-old story wouldn't feel as immediate, but it does turn out that immediacy is part of the intoxicating appeal of these true crime stories.

But because you're at a remove from this story, it's easier to evaluate it as a piece of filmmaking -- and there too, watching it today is very different from how seeing it in 1988 would have been. As in fiction movies, you get the sense that this documentary was creating techniques copied by later ones. Indeed, the way The Thin Blue Line introduces new wrinkles into its story is almost exactly how Making a Murderer does it -- all you're missing is the 20-second countdown before Netflix automatically starts playing the next episode. Other aspects have fallen by the wayside and look quite dated, such as the repeated reenactments of the police officer's murder, realized with spotty production values.

Still, The Thin Blue Line ultimately works. Just as 12 Angry Men is a towering ancestor of "courtroom drama" still worthy of respect, The Thin Blue Line is the same for crime documentaries. I give it a B.

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