In anticipation of the upcoming 2015 Toronto Hot Docs International Festival of Documentary Cinema, here's my review of the new Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-Ray release of the classic Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line. YOUNG FILMMAKERS (MAYBE EVEN A FEW SEASONED ONES) WHO ARE FORCED TO GO THROUGH THE DOG & PONY SHOWS DURING PUBLIC PITCH SESSIONS @ FILM FESTS (OR INFURIATING PRIVATE MEETINGS OUTSIDE THIS RARIFIED PURVIEW) MIGHT WELL RECOGNIZE A FEW CHOICE RANTS CONTAINED HEREIN AND/OR EVEN LEARN A FEW THINGS, LIKE, FOR EXAMPLE, HOW GREAT MOVIES ARE REALLY MADE (OR WORSE, NOT MADE).
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Dir. Errol Morris
Review By Greg Klymkiw
There are many stupid things filmmakers have to put up with from those who hold the purse-strings. The worst, I think, is what documentary filmmakers have to go through - facing down (mostly) idiot "commissioning editors", the lofty title many dimwit broadcasters enjoy lobbing about like so many balls on the tennis courts of their respective power positions. These puffed-up pea-knuckles require - nay, DEMAND - from said filmmakers, a clear narrative structure for the documentaries; blow-by-blow treatises which guarantee, at least on paper, what the final movie will be. More often than not, these sycophantic blowhards, who purport to know what their viewers want, are looking for "sexy" nuggets which can be boiled down into bite-sized log lines not much bigger than the meagre sections of the brains they attempt to valiantly make use of.
This is what Errol Morris faced at the beginning of his life as a filmmaker. These, of course, were in the days when there was no real independent industry and the opportunities to finance documentary cinema, at least in America, was relegated to whatever pittances could be squelched out of public educational broadcasters. Even those bastions of artistic nobility required guarantees as to what they'd be getting.
The problem, of course, is you don't always know - especially in documentary film - which way the winds are going to blow when you're documenting something.
Those shifting sands might actually involve finding the story.
"Tut-tut," most commissioning editors chide, "God forbid!"
Or life itself might generate a better film than what was originally pitched.
"Impossible," the commissioning editors insist. "After all, we've had a hand in shaping your film in these early stages and we're ultimately the real artists."
Or the explorations of documentary filmmakers might even affect change.
"It's what we demand!" the commissioning editors confirm. "That's why we make sure fuckers like you do as we tell them to do before you can get a dime out of us."
And here was Errol Morris, finally deciding to chuck it all and give up making films at all. For three years, he worked as a private investigator - not bad training for ANY filmmaker, never mind those of the doc persuasion, but Morris knew he needed to make films again. The story is legendary. As he describes in one of the fantastic extras Criterion provides on the DVD, Morris hears about an utterly appalling human being employed by the State of Texas to ensure that convicted murderers get the death sentence rather than life in prison.
The jury had to be provided with proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the "probability" of the convicted man or woman to commit deathly acts of violence again was not only high, but pretty much a guarantee. And who could guarantee such a thing? Why, none other than Dr. James Grigson, a much-beloved psychiatrist with the monicker "Dr. Death." Morris pitched a documentary about this clown and his financiers bit upon the bait greedily.
Once in Dallas, Morris discovered something else. One of the men Dr. Death would proclaim to be a worthy recipient of the death penalty, might actually be innocent and was about to be railroaded into an electric chair by a number of not-too-bright and ambitious members of the State prosecution, law enforcement and judicial team.
This is what became The Thin Blue Line, one of the greatest American documentaries ever made. From beginning to end, you experience a complex murder mystery wherein one Randall Dale Adams, a long-haired drifter was charged and convicted of a murder he didn't commit. Utilizing all the powers of cinematic art, Morris provides us with a gorgeously shot and tautly edited story which has us on the edge of our seats and increasingly fuels our anger and frustration as we experience the endless traps set to condemn the wrong man.
Blending effective dramatic recreations, penetrating interviews, wisely selected archival news footage, Weegee-like stills and a classic, pulsating original score by Phillip Glass, The Thin Blue Line forces us as viewers to perch nervously on the edge of our seats with mouths agape. (I'll never forget first seeing the film during a Gala screening at the 1988 Toronto International Film Festival wherein, during moments of silence or quiet, you could hear a pin drop in the packed-to-the-rafters cinema unspooling the picture.) Even knowing the outcome of the events depicted, my recent viewing on the Criterion Collection home entertainment version, yielded a similar effect, but one which was enhanced by the stunning transfer and the benefit of my own age, life experience and exposure to similar contemporary miscarriages of justice.
It's an important and dazzling movie. What began as a project to appease the financial powers that be, morphed by breaking all the rules into a picture that did far more than present a telling indictment of the judicial system, but a movie that saved an innocent man's life - an innocent man who had spent 12 years in prison, most of them on death-row until one year after the film's release when the charges were dropped and he went free.
Think on this well as you watch the film. More importantly, think on the tenacity and brilliance of Errol Morris. Most of all, if you're a filmmaker, let it empower you to make films that are not merely ephemeral, but films that confound all expectations and lack of vision displayed by the powers-that-be - a film that will live now and forever.
And maybe, just maybe, save lives.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
The Criterion Collection director-approved DVD and Blue-Ray of The Thin Blue Line includes all the aforementioned virtues in addition to an HD digital restoration, supervised by director Errol Morris and producer Mark Lipson, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a great interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing, an NBC report from 1989 that covers Randall Adams’s release from prison, a fine essay by film scholar Charles Musser and a stunningly designed new cover by Peter Mendelsund.
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