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MGM Studios DVD presents
"There wasn't a mark on this car that David Harris had stolen. Wudn't a mark. You'd think a car sitting still, starting from stop, heading up a hill with a woman standing right behind it that is a very good shot with a pistol—she should have hit the damn thing one time. She didn't. I wish to God she would've blown whoever was driving the car's head off, because I wouldn't have been there."
DVD Review"What's going on here?" That's the question that kept popping up in my mind while watching Errol Morris' documentary The Thin Blue Line. I originally saw it years ago in a high school social studies class and became mesmerized by the interviews and storytelling. Years have passed and Morris' more recent works, especially The Fog of War, are far more concise and technically dazzling. However, in this particular documentary about a man wrongfully convicted of murder, Morris achieves a power and honesty that none of his other works have matched. The material is so pure that repeat viewings feel just as fresh as my original exposure to Randall Adam's story.
During the Thanksgiving Day weekend in 1976, Dallas police officer Robert Wood is shot five times during a routine traffic stop, dying on the scene. Almost everything goes awry from the beginning. Wood's partner, Teresa Turko, did not assume the proper position during the incident and could never adequately identify the type of car or who was driving it. The police follow false leads based upon her original report that provide dead ends, until one day a troubled 16-year-old boy begins to set the wheels in motion. David Harris claims that he stole a man's car to go driving around and used it to spend the day with Randall Adams. The two drank beer, smoked marijuana, and went to the drive-in. This much Harris and Adams agree upon, but Harris goes further and claims that Adams shot Officer Wood while driving the car. This runs contrary to his initial claims a month earlier, when he returned to his small Texas hometown and bragged about killing the, in his reported words, "f***ing pig."
Morris and his editor, Paul Barnes, weave interviews of law enforcement officials, Harris, Adams, Adams' attorneys, and witnesses at the trial to paint a triumphant whodunit. The only thing is, Morris and the viewer become the detectives this time around. We see Harris' story fall to pieces, the preposterous evidence offered up by the prosecution, and Adams' sincere interview as pieces to a puzzle. Quickly and unequivocally everything point to Adams being innocent and Harris being guilty. Watching the specifics of the case relayed here is so devastating that I felt ashamed of the judicial system. Morris doesn't paint the detectives and prosecutors as monsters, but he certainly lets us know that they acted with motivations beyond a desire for the truth. Whether it is the famous D.A. Douglas Mulder seeking yet another death penalty victory or surprise witnesses lying in order to get reward money, the events shown here play like a circus. If this wasn't a true story, it would pass as a delicious satire—particularly when one of the witnesses claims to have a "total recall" memory, yet only a few minutes later keeps swapping back and forth between what kind of car he saw at the traffic stop.
Morris' filmmaking here is his trademark style, though there are some noticeable aspects that lack polish. Audio gaffs can be noticed, such as abrupt moments of silence between interviews, but he creates vivid images of the world being discussed. Staging re-enactments of the fatal shooting and police interrogation—a move that could easily be cheesy and bring death to the documentary's credibility—as well as his trademark visuals to convey the content being discussed, Morris delivers a fully engrossing film. He paces the action quite nicely and allows his interviews to provide the backbone of the narrative structure. Shooting with each person looking almost directly into the camera while framed in the center of the screen helps create an intimate tone for the whole movie. Each person seems to be given adequate time to justify their position and behavior, while Morris makes his points without resorting to ad hominem attacks.
It's tempting to lose sight of Randall Adams and David Harris in the midst of all the courtroom drama and police procedures. Little is ever revealed about Adams' life, but his demeanor is so forthright that the image of him sitting on a chair wearing that white shirt will forever remain in my mind. Harris is a far more complex person, based on what is presented here. It's fairly evident that he murdered the police officer and successfully pinned it on Adams, but Morris goes further into his life to attempt to explain why. There doesn't appear to be a satisfactory answer, just like no explanation can ever justify the wrongful imprisonment and death sentence handed down to Adams. There are likely many more people in this world who suffer a similar predicament as Adams, but with people like Morris serving the cause of truth in our society, perhaps society will find itself on the right side of justice's thin blue line.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: The original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is preserved quite nicely in this anamorphic widescreen transfer. The skin tones are accurate and the whole picture has a strong film-like look to it. Colors come across as rich and the whole picture is quite crisp.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The original Dolby Stereo surround sound mix is preserved for this release. The interviews are easy to understand, emanating from the front sound stage when played in ProLogic. Philip Glass' score is well balanced and occupies the surround speakers quite nicely, not causing any distractions. I didn't notice any sound separation or directionality, but the mix is quite sufficient.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Errol Morris' First Person: The Complete Series DVD, Coffee and Cigarettes DVD, The Saddest Music in the World DVD, Kitchen Stories DVD, MGM Means Great Movies
Layers Switch: 01h:07m:27s
Extras Review: The supplemental features consist of an episode from Errol Morris' First Person and trailers for MGM DVD releases. The MGM advertisement campaign consists of Errol Morris' First Person: The Complete Series, Coffee and Cigarettes, The Saddest Music in the World DVD, Kitchen Stories, and MGM Means Great Movies. Each is shown in nonanamorphic video and with Dolby Stereo 2.0, but none are especially good trailers. The First Person is a brief documentary interview with forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Stone. Mr. Personality (27m:45s) is the complete episode of that interview, with Morris' trademark style in full force. He's more active in the conversation here than in his feature work, but the content is not as engaging. Stone is an expert on evil, giving many examples that are horrifying but so gruesome that they left me rather numb. However, he clearly displays a great deal of knowledge on the material, but through the interview it becomes clear that he doesn't seem to be able to discuss himself very well.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsErrol Morris' best work, The Thin Blue Line is a searing documentary that has the power to enrich one's appreciation of life. The DVD is sparse on the extras, but the image and sound transfers deliver the movie to home theater enthusiasts with satisfying results.
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