My pick for this week is Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line.
When The Thin Blue Line was released in 1988, its director Errol Morris publicly said that he didn't consider it to be a documentary, that it was instead a "non-fiction film." This is perhaps why the film, despite being one of the most famous, acclaimed, and influential movies of its kind, did not score an Academy Award nomination that year for Best Documentary. But with the shifts and evolutions that have occurred in documentary filmmaking in the past 25 years, and increased prominence of documentary films, The Thin Blue Line may not seem as groundbreaking and unconventional as it once did, but it is not for lack of ambition, nor for lack of artistry.
In 1976, a man named Randall Adams was arrested for the murder of a Dallas police officer. He was convicted and sentenced to death. It wasn't a particularly notable news story at the time, briefly sparking local police fervor that died down when a perp was arrested. After Adams' conviction, the wheels of the justice system began turning in the way they always had. People were killed. People were arrested. Then THOSE people were killed, and so, and so forth. There seemed to be little reason to pay attention to the story of Randall Adams until the documentarian Errol Morris came across his story.
And Morris did what he did best -- he told a story. Several of them, in fact. The Thin Blue Line meticulously reconstructs and reenacts the testimonies of the people involved, in scenes that were highly controversial at the time, using actors, sets, and props to bring to life each person's side of the story -- Adams, the cops, the witnesses. Many of the film's critics railed against this approach. They lambasted the film for failing to maintain "objectivity." As if there could be such a thing. As if such a thing should really be needed in a documentary!
Morris dubbing The Thin Blue Line a "non-fiction film" as opposed to a "documentary" is a telling distinction. Just as in a non-fiction book we don't necessarily expect objectivity -- otherwise, where would be the place of essays? -- The Thin Blue Line is an argument, not a presentation of staid statistics and facts shorn of their spirit. It is a murder mystery, an exploration of the justice system, and a portrait of several fascinating figures, not least among them an odd young man named David Ray Harris.
And in the film's most riveting sequence, Morris holds the audience's attention with nothing more than an audio track and single shot of a tape recorder. And THAT would cause the film's biggest influence -- an enormous influence that lay almost entirely outside of filmmaking, proof (if proof were needed) that art does have an effect on life, that what we put in front of a camera makes a difference in the world, that the act of filming something can fundamentally change the thing being filmed. And for proving that alone, we should all be thankful for The Thin Blue Line.