Errol Morris' ground-breaking film, The Thin Blue Line, brought tears to my eyes at its ending and after digesting it for some time, it filled me anger. First, the tears. Stories like this (be it on film, TV, newspaper, wherever) always have this effect.
The name Lindy Chamberlain comes to mind, and the destruction that was wrongly wrought upon that poor woman and those close to her. Nearly a decade ago, I saw Peter Button's similarly tragic story on the ABC's Australian Story, which prompted me to contact him to offer my support and empathy, and we remain in occasional touch, though we have never met. More recently, the stories of Mambdouh Habib and David Hicks have also touched me. Indeed the plight of these two has prompted me to do something I hadn't done since I was a teenager - attending political rallies protesting Hicks' inhumane and unlawful treatment.
What can I say about The Thin Blue Line? This is a much-discussed film (that I have only just discovered ) and engendered a whole new look at the role of film-maker, documentarian and the nature of the medium. It resulted in an innocent man being released after many years’ incarceration, for a crime another man had confessed to (just like John Button). I'm not going to mull over the details of the film or the case it covers - check out the links at the bottom of this post for that kind of information.
Errol Morris didn’t just document a situation, he participated in the situation and was a champion for his subject. Yet, throughout all but the final sequence of the film (when we hear a tape recorded conversation between Morris and the actual killer on Death Row) Morris’ involvement is invisible. We neither see nor hear him, and we see that trademark Morris style where he lets the talking head do the talking.
The film is itself like a mystery and stylistically fashioned on film noir. Morris does not identify the talking heads with sub-titles. We gradually ascertain who each participant is by the nature of their conversations, and only during the final credits do we actually see the names of the participants.
I found a major strength of the documentary was the minimalist hands-off approach by Morris. He doesn’t ram a message home á la Michael Moore. He merely presents the facts as simply and rationally as possible. He lets his subjects do the talking and in doing so, we get to judge for ourselves the various merits or othewise of their words. The body language evident is profound. When a defence lawyer says that he never practised law again, that he couldn't confront another jury, after a man was convicted and sentenced to the electric chair on such unsound evidence, the silence is deafening. Morris' understated approach shows expertise and confidence in conveying a story, trusting his audience.
What we get a clear picture of is a comedy of errors, incompetence, production of false witnesses, corruption, self-interest and disregard for the facts. This is where the anger comes from, that I alluded to before. That one person’s life should mean so little, with so little concern for whether he is innocent or guilty is appalling. What is depicted is not isolated, but rather an example of what law enforcement engages in the world over. While the circumstances are superficially different, the processes and outcome were virtually identical for John Button. I have seen the same type of scenario up close; these are universal themes.
What is depicted is not isolated, but rather an example of what law enforcement engages in the world over. While the circumstances are superficially different, the processes and outcome were virtually identical for John Button. I have seen the same type of scenario up close; these are universal themes.
The noir like re-enactments are a stylistic triumph. This aspect is visually and aesthetically stunning and makes the medium much more accessible and appreciable. As one of the subjects points out, “everyone likes a good crime story”. The music was used to great effect; it was understated and added ambiance to the story without overwhelming it.
The music was used to great effect; it was understated and added ambiance to the story without overwhelming it.
My first exposure to Errol Morris was when I was in the
For anyone interested in the subject of this film, I highly recommend the link to the outline of the facts of the case, below.
(I recommend you don't read this section until you've seen the film)
Excerpt from the film (source: IMDB):
Errol Morris: Were you surprised when the police blamed him?
David Harris: They didn't blame him. I did. A scared sixteen year old kid. He would sure like to get out of it if he can.
Errol Morris: Do you think they believed you?
David Harris: No doubt. Must have. They didn't have nothing else until I give them something, so... I guess they get something, they run with it, you know.
Errol Morris: Were you surprised they believed you?
David Harris: I might have been. I don't know. I was hoping they'd believe me, you know. After all was said and done it was kind of unbelievable. But there it is. I've always thought if you could say why there's a reason Randall Adams is in jail, it might be because the fact that he didn't have no place for somebody to stay that helped him that night... landed him where's he's at... That might be the reason. That might be the only, total reason why he's where he's at today.