With Richard Brody recently calling reenactment “the bane and curse of the modern documentary film” and accrediting much of that blame to The Thin Blue Line, it may be tempting to scapegoat Errol Morris’s film as a patron of an impending media-obsessed zeitgeist rather than a prescient opponent to it. That’s Brody’s tack when he flatly lumps the film in with The Jinx, describing director Andrew Jarecki’s reenactments as “hack,” and ultimately stating that both films are products of “formula.” However, such a historical trajectory gains little traction when one examines The Thin Blue Line closely and understands its reenactments as deliberately disfigured puzzle pieces that cannot be assembled into a singularly coherent image. The Jinx uses its reenacted sequences as supplements to talking-head interviews in order to assist the storytelling; it’s meant to be a swift, fluid motion in the name of coherence, unraveling the complexities of a decades-long mystery. The Thin Blue Line makes no such claim for clarity because it stages reenactments to fragment and undermine the conflicting testimonies given by the film’s various eyewitnesses and investigators.
Aside from brief recreations of events inside an interrogation room and at a drive-in movie theater, the film’s reenactments largely take place along a brief stretch of a darkened Dallas interstate. It’s here that police officer Robert Wood was shot and killed attempting to make a routine traffic stop. That piece of information is the only certainty Morris allows, as the film revisits this scene nearly a dozen times with successive tweaks and alterations made throughout. Rarely is the murder shown in full; instead, Morris focuses on various details upon each revisit, such as a hand gently thumping a steering wheel or a Burger King milkshake being flung into the air. These fragments, however, aren’t attempts at comprehensiveness or alternative perspectives, since Morris refuses to outwardly speculate on alternative triggermen. Randall Adams sits on death row for the slaying, but Morris not once reveals the shooter’s face, nor does he reenact the possibility that suspected accomplice David Harris was sitting in the car with Adams. All that’s reenacted are the events as they’re told from the perspectives of the Dallas County police and passerbys who claim to have witnessed the scene moments before the shooting.
Through its emphasis on repetition transmogrified into incoherence, The Thin Blue Line ironically presents the content of a murder trial as fodder for pop fantasy. The connection becomes quite clear with the testimony of Emily Miller, who expresses her fondness for detective stories while making an alarming claim that death tends to follow her wherever she goes. Her explanations aren’t only illegible with regard to her placement at the scene, but they unfold as if a wholly concocted development within the mystery narratives she finds so enthralling. To this end, Morris makes no interjection. At no point is Miller’s testimony actually questioned; Morris straightforwardly reenacts her car chugging by at the alleged time she states. Nevertheless, Miller’s emphasis on hard-boiled fiction retroactively finds its way into the film through the reenactments, since noirish shadows are actually informing the case. Miller testifies to a reality forged through fiction, so Morris forges a fiction through the “truths” of reality.
Repetition without context or meaning yields a nightmare, which is precisely where The Thin Blue Line finally lands. Morris locates a growing cultural interest in simulation, which is perfectly encapsulated by a large, Dallas County map which serves as a backdrop throughout a particular police interview. Here is what troubles Morris: a sense that actual lived experience is being subordinated to reliving moments and details absent their originary moment. The film’s reenactments are this nightmare personified, where a singular instance of violence forms an inescapable prison of insanity, from which there’s no discernible exit, since the pull of pop myth precludes objective justice.
While Morris ethically denies these trends through an avoidance of exploitation, the film necessarily espouses them, spawning the fantasy of its subjects, but intimating that the only logical end for these myths is implosion. That’s the conclusion of defense attorney Dennis White, who swears off his practice following what he perceives to be an unlawful conviction of Adams. Morris consistently returns to that lone stretch of road, which could be the blacktop from Detour or Thieves’ Highway, because that road is symbolically no less a product of those films than the construction labor that literally yielded it. The Thin Blue Line remains one of American cinema’s greatest self-flagellations, a stripped-bare plea bred of measured indignation that’s as attuned to the troubles of representation as its representations of the troubled.
The image and sound of the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray for The Thin Blue Line is a marked improvement over MGM’s passable 2005 DVD, especially in its clarity of depth during interviews. In these scenes, Errol Morris’s thoughtful staging becomes ever more clear, with maps, photographs, ajar doors, and paintings attaining a visibility not previously seen on home video. There are no visible markings, blips, or debris to the image throughout. Likewise, sound is impeccable, with a new DTS-HD audio track booming testimony and Philip Glass’s memorable score in equal measure.
Criterion has neglected to supplement this "landmark film," as Joshua Oppenheimer calls it in a featured interview, with an appropriate set of extras. Oppenheimer’s interview is informative, as he explains the film’s interest in "dramatizations of self-deceptive fantasies," a term he prefers in place of reenactment. Oppenheimer slips into hyperbolic fawning in lieu of analysis a bit too frequently ("To call it great is to diminish it"), but his explanation of the film’s aesthetic tactics is precise and imaginative, much like the film itself. A new 40-minute interview with Morris is the disc’s highlight, as he explains how his work as a private detective prior to making the film informed the production. Morris claims to be put off by the postmodern idea of constructing truth, which is fascinating since the film appears so inclined to engage it. He says that his reenactments are about activating a viewer’s critical faculties, rather than having them turned off. Yet Morris comes off less as a credit-seeking braggadocio than an artist who refuses submission to more tempered expressions of these true-crime events. He claims truth to be absolute, but crucially modifies this axiom by saying: "It doesn’t matter if we can’t know [truth]." Otherwise, a brief segment from a 1989 episode of Today interviews Randall Adams shortly after his exoneration from death row and an essay by Charles Musser examines the film’s "flouting of vérité principles."
The Thin Blue Line might be jinxed by having to put up with a slew of imitators, but the Criterion Collection’s impressive new Blu-ray puts Errol Morris’s polymorphous aims hauntingly on display.