The Thin Blue Line

The original true crime doc that started it all.

Errol Morris’s 1988 film takes you on a wild ride through the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams, with dramatic reenactments and a chilling Philip Glass score:

This isn’t just a documentary; it’s a cinematic rescue mission that changes everything.

Thanks to Tony Pribyl and Brian Savelson for reminding me to review this classic!

It’s also ranked #10 on my list of Best Social Justice Documentaries.

Trailer for “The Thin Blue Line”

Watch “The Thin Blue Line”

Release Date: March 18, 1988

Watch “The Thin Blue Line”:

Check here for the latest streaming options:


  • My Rating: 96/100
  • IMDB Rating: 7.5/10
  • Rotten Tomatoes Ratings: 100/100 (Users); 96/100 (Critics)

Review of “The Thin Blue Line”

“The Thin Blue Line,” directed by Errol Morris, is a groundbreaking 1988 doc. It runs for 103 minutes. This doc delves into the 1976 murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood.

The doc revolves around Randall Dale Adams, a drifter accused of the crime. Morris’s film examines the flaws in the justice system that led to Adams’s wrongful conviction. It’s a chilling reminder of how easily the system can go astray.

Errol Morris’s style was revolutionary. He intercuts interviews with dramatic reenactments. This technique blurred the lines between documentary and fiction. At the time, it was highly unconventional and stirred significant controversy.

Morris chose not to identify interview subjects with on-screen titles or captions. Viewers must piece together who each person is based on context. This approach forces you to pay close attention and engage deeply with the material.

The film’s score by Philip Glass is haunting. It plays over the interview segments, blending documentary and narrative storytelling. The music adds a layer of tension and atmosphere, heightening the film’s impact.

Morris’s interview setups were highly stylized. He used extensive lighting setups, giving the interviews a formal, almost theatrical quality. This choice set the doc apart from the cinéma vérité style that was popular at the time.

The reenactments in “The Thin Blue Line” include subtle fictional elements. For example, a Burger King restaurant is shown instead of the actual diner the police officers visited. These choices add to the film’s unique narrative style.

The doc suggests that a female police officer was unprofessional, prioritizing eating over assisting her partner. This portrayal likely exploits viewer biases about women in law enforcement roles. It’s a provocative and controversial implication.

An unexamined contradiction arises about the town of Vidor, Texas. The doc hints that the town might have been more sympathetic if the murdered officer was black, given its racist history. This raises complex questions about race and justice that the film leaves unanswered.

The defense attorneys recount the harassment they faced in Vidor. They describe a hostile environment fueled by the town’s racism. This context adds depth to the story, highlighting the social and cultural pressures at play.

Morris rejected the cinéma vérité documentary style, criticizing it for setting back documentary filmmaking twenty or thirty years. His bold approach helped redefine the genre and pushed the boundaries of what a doc could be.

The film’s unconventional approach led to controversy. The Academy initially refused to consider it for the Best Documentary Oscar. They cited its use of reenactments and scripted content as reasons for its disqualification. This decision sparked a debate about the nature of documentary filmmaking.

“The Thin Blue Line” ultimately helped exonerate Randall Dale Adams. After the film’s release, new evidence emerged, leading to Adams’s release from prison. The doc played a crucial role in correcting a grave miscarriage of justice.

Adams had been sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. His case hinged on the testimony of David Harris, a teenager with a troubled past. Morris’s film reveals Harris’s role in the crime and his manipulation of the legal system.

The doc meticulously reconstructs the night of the murder. Morris uses interviews, reenactments, and archival footage to piece together the events. This thorough approach exposes inconsistencies and lies in the prosecution’s case.

The film’s title refers to the police as the “thin blue line” separating order from chaos. Morris challenges this notion, suggesting that the police can also be agents of injustice. It’s a powerful critique of the criminal justice system.

“The Thin Blue Line” is more than a true-crime story. It’s an exploration of truth, memory, and the fallibility of the human mind. The film asks you to question your assumptions and consider the complexities of justice.

Morris’s meticulous attention to detail is evident throughout the doc. He interviews key figures involved in the case, including Adams, Harris, police officers, and lawyers. Each interview adds a new layer to the story.

The film’s editing is masterful. Morris weaves together different perspectives and timelines, creating a cohesive and compelling narrative. The editing style is both innovative and effective, keeping you engaged from start to finish.

One of the most striking aspects of the doc is its visual style. Morris uses dramatic lighting and composition to create a distinctive look. The film’s aesthetic choices contribute to its overall impact and help convey its themes.

“The Thin Blue Line” had a lasting impact on the documentary genre. Its use of reenactments and dramatic storytelling techniques influenced countless filmmakers. Morris’s innovative approach opened up new possibilities for how docs could be made.

The doc’s influence extends beyond filmmaking. It sparked discussions about the criminal justice system and the potential for wrongful convictions. The film’s success helped raise awareness about these critical issues.

In conclusion, “The Thin Blue Line” is a landmark in documentary filmmaking. Errol Morris’s innovative approach, combined with a compelling story, makes it a must-watch. The film not only tells a gripping tale but also challenges you to think critically about justice and truth.

Thanks for reading!

Rob Kelly, Chief Maniac, Daily Doc