The Nature of Truth: Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line

The most crucial and persistent message in Errol Morris’s body of work is his belief that human fallibility is the main obstacle in occluding the truth. Sometimes that fallibility is harmless, even amusing to watch (the occasionally radical theories espoused by subjects in First Show are testament to that), and yet just as frequently human error is disastrous. It allows atrocities to happen, people to be tortured and scapegoated, innocents to be sentenced to death row.

Morris’s films are more interested in revealing the frequently flawed interior workings of his subjects than in revealing any kind of objective truths themselves. That many of his works do end up revealing holistically a factual argument almost feels like an indirect byproduct of the sometimes dubious testimony he’s able to coax from his subjects. Morris has been called the “anti-postmodernism postmodernist” because his films don’t guarantee that truths are contingent on or irretrievably lost in the past, but that it can sometimes boil down to human judgment, error, and bias covering them up.

In The Thin Blue Line, Morris did start conducting interviews with a very specific goal in mind: to prove Randall Adams’s innocence and his denial of a fair trial in the murder of police officer Robert Wood. The film, in Morris’s estimation, only proved the latter: After its release, repeated legal attempts finally resulted in a retrial allowing new evidence—some documents that Morris had unearthed in his research, and videotaped interviews used in the film—which allowed Adams to finally be released after serving a life sentence for 12 years.

Morris became interested in Adams’s case by chance when he talked to him while interviewing convicts who had been labeled by the infamous James Grigson as psychopaths, likely to kill again if released. Grigson was reputed to have designated with 100% certainty almost every criminal he interviewed as psychopaths, decisions based on 15-to-20-minute conversations. Significantly, his reports and testimonies were used in the state of Texas as evidence for whether or not a person warranted a death-penalty charge, a chilling fact that The Thin Blue Line touches on (in the mid ’90s Grigson was expelled by the American Psychiatric Association). While Morris was initially interested in creating a documentary about Grigson, who’d earned the nickname “Dr. Death,” Morris became much more eager to investigate claims made by Adams, who told Morris he was innocent and needed help.

Morris began to believe in Adams’s innocence when he started to peruse the documents and transcripts of the botched trial and found in his own investigation files that indicated that District Attorney of Dallas Henry Wade and his assistant Douglas Mulder were fully aware of factual inconsistencies provided in David Harris’s testimony. As Adams says in the film, Harris’s account of the day Wood was shot was consistently two hours off. Because Harris and Adams had gone to a drive-in movie theater together a mere two hours before Wood was shot, ostensibly part of the legal investigation would have included checking the theater’s schedule. Mulder’s report indicated that Harris’s timing was, indeed, wrong, based on the screening times, yet they suppressed this crucial information during the trial. And so, Morris used his own skills as a private investigator (a freelance position he had before making The Thin Blue Line) to interview the police officers, legal professionals, and witnesses in order to exonerate Adams. In Morris’s words, his camera became an investigative tool into a murder, and the more information he procured from his subjects, the more it became obvious that not only that Adams was innocent, but that Harris was responsible (he indirectly confesses to the crime in the last interview heard in the film, an audio-recorded conversation with Morris). Both Morris and Adams have acknowledged the immense value and necessity in the filmmaker’s investigative work in helping Adams be freed, though their relationship post-emancipation suffered, as Adams was bitter that Morris had the rights to his life story, and they settled the case out of court.

In the 25 years since the film’s release, Morris has been able to articulate his theories on human fallibility through a variety of projects, most recently in The Unknown Known and previously inThe Fog of War. In these films, Morris challenged his own abilities as an expert interviewer by discussing the moral implications in the actions taken by two former U.S. secretaries of defense—both seasoned professionals in the art of moral justification and interrogation. The critical results have been more mixed: Some claim Morris was too soft with Robert S. McNamara and that Donal Rumsfeld never let down his guard, though one could argue that the entire point of The Unknown Known was to demonstrate the power of Rumsfeld’s cognitive dissonance. Even if Morris’s latest works don’t have quite the same impact as The Thin Blue Line, very few documentaries do, and regardless of that, one could scarcely call his latest efforts less than consistently ambitious.

The Thin Blue Line remains a landmark in Morris’s oeuvre because it revealed and corrected a flawed judicial process—a phenomenon that Morris says could not have happened if the film were released today, as not only are Supreme Court death-penalty cases notoriously more difficult to appeal, media saturation wouldn’t have allowed Adams’s story to remain quiet for so long. Though that may be true, it doesn’t quell the significance of cinema as a catalyst for change. Though that idea seems old-fashioned and quaint now, from the era of John Grierson, The Thin Blue Line is proof that sometimes, though rarely, the political impact of a film can be as tangible as an innocent man being freed from prison.