The Thin Blue Line
Truth is a Pursuit
Errol Morris is one of the most intelligent documentarians working in American film, and we might wonder whether this quality is much more usefully applicable to the non-fiction filmmaker than it happens to be in reference to the director of dramatic works. Perhaps in fictional films intelligence is dispersive, a quality so divided by the numerous brains at work in a drama that it is hard to feel the mind of its creator as a thinker. But in documentary there are numerous documentarians whose thinking seems present in the material, with Chris Marker, Patrick Keiller, Morris and Alex Gibney four who come to mind. In Marker and Keiller's case it is like watching a mind organizing their thoughts; in Morris and Gibney's a mind organizing its material. Marker and Keiller generally want to create space for their perceptual faculties, evident in Marker's Sans soleil and Keiller'sLondon. Sans soleil's voice-over allows for numerous observations on Africa and Japan as it takes the form of a letter written detailing a man's travels. London's voice-over gives room for numerous observations about aspects of the titular city. In each instance the voice-over isn't simply Marker's or Keiller's. In Sans soleil it is a woman's, reading out the letter. In London it is Paul Scofield, playing the unseen narrator who visits various parts of the city with the equally unseen Robinson, whose remarks the narrator often refers to. If Marker is close to the letter writer; Keiller would seem to be close to Robinson, but they are nevertheless variations of what Deleuze has called conceptual personae: figures allowing the author creativity at one remove without quite speaking in another voice or transforming their material into the fictional. We can think here most obviously of Kierkegaard in Either/Or, Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. These are not works of fiction (they fall very much into the canon of philosophy), but Kierkegaard and Nietzsche seek other voices to express their thoughts. As Deleuze says "the conceptual persona is not the philosopher's representative but, rather, the reverse: the philosopher is only the envelope of his principal conceptual persona and of all the other personae who are the intercessors [intercesseurs], the real subjects of his philosophy. Conceptual personae are the philosopher's heteronyms." (What is Philosophy?)
Like Gibney, Morris is more inclined not to express his thoughts indirectly, but intermediately. Where Marker and Keiller are essayists at one semi-fictional remove, Morris and Gibney usually seek a documentary subject with which to give dramatic force to their work. These figures might be ostensibly unsympathetic, as we find in Morris's Mr Death, The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, focusing on an execution equipment maker who is also a Holocaust denier, Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld respectively. We find the dubious and unsympathetic in Gibney's work too: with troublesome figures in Client 9 and The Armstrong Lie. But they aren't all equally so: (McNamara comes across impressively and Elliot Spitzer in Client 9 as a man with principles unfortunately trumped by hubris), but these are all troublesome or ambivalent figures that Morris and Gibney can access for their own dramatic, if nevertheless documentative, rather than essayistic ends. These would not at all be conceptual personae.
This is never clearer than in Morris's The Thin Blue Line, where the film plays out a little like a film noir with an unseen detective; yet it is through this absent presence that Morris's intelligence comes through. Now this is perhaps an important but under-explored aspect of documentary cinema: that where an absent presence is very difficult to pull off in fiction film and hardly ever attempted (think The Lady in the Lake and La femme defendue), it is frequently utilised in non-fiction film, and constantly seen as thoroughly normal. This suggests that we offer a far higher degree of presence to the camera in a documentary film than we do in a fictional work: that we can accept the camera as a surrogate for the documentary filmmaker in non-fiction, but struggle to do so when the camera replaces the character, as happens in The Lady in The Lake and La femme defendue. Obviously if in fiction film it is for a brief point of view shot that is fine, but not across the entire work. Yet while we never see the 'detective' in the Thin Blue Line, it causes us no problems as the film moves from character to character while the perspective behind the camera moves between private eye and defence lawyer as Morris invisibly plays both roles.
Morris initially became interested in researching Texas psychiatrist Dr James Grigson, a figure so famous for insisting that the criminals he saw would be likely to commit violent crimes again in the future, and thus ought to be executed, that he was nicknamed Dr Death. One of those he certified was Randall Adams, sentenced for murdering a Dallas cop, and this became the case that fascinated Morris. Adams was sentenced to be executed (shortly afterwards commuted to life imprisonment) for a crime he almost certainly didn't commit. As Morris interviews unreliable witnesses, law officers and law officials who admit they were determined to find a culprit, as he interviews a defence lawyer so dismayed by the legal outcome that he quits practicing law, so, as Terrence Rafferty puts it in his New Yorker review, "it's hard to think of another movie (let alone another documentary) that has such a richly developed sense of the texture of falsehood, that picks out so many of the strands that, woven together, blind us." Unlike Gibney, Morris doesn't rely on voice-over to convey point of view, but instead on selection. Of course Gibney selects too, and this is why we feel both Gibney and Morris are documentarists of the material rather than documentarists of their thoughts, but Morris wants the material to speak without accompanying verbal narration and yet allows a point of view to be pronounced nevertheless. When at the end of the film Morris announces in a subtitle that he had a final interview with David Harris, the likely culprit, we cut to a tape recorder, and what amounts to Harris's confession. As Bill Nichols says in Representing Reality, "the power of the sequence, in large part, follows more from its narrative placement at the end of the film than from its irrefutable "proof" of guilt and innocence. Roland Barthes's claim that, in fiction, truth is a function of what comes last was never more true than here." After all, as Nichols notes, there is an element of the Cretan paradox to Harris's claims. When he says on tape, "Criminals always lie", what are we to make of this? If criminals always lie then can we take Harris's confession seriously? But it is as though Morris by placing the scene at the end of a film that has made it almost unequivocally clear that Randall Adams is an innocent man, is suggesting that, in this instance, Harris is probably being honest. Coming earlier in the film it would have been closer to the Cretan paradox, but when the variables are taken into account, the paradox disappears next to the evidence for the truth.
This marshalling of the information means that Morris manages to be both ambiguous and truth-seeking simultaneously. That we may feel the latter is more pronounced than the former watching it now is not Morris's 'fault'. As Kevin Macdonald (who made a documentary about Morris's work, A Brief History of Errol Morris) says, "Morris uses a combination of interviews and tasteful reconstruction to create a full picture of the case, which ultimately ended with Adams' acquittal after 12 years in prison." (Guardian) What it possessed in ambiguity it has since gained in truth as the film ended up functioning a little like a case for the defence.
Yet this is partly where we see Morris's intelligence at work. Let us say for example you are a lawyer determined to get your client off the hook, and you have a recording of someone making the claims Harris makes, and let us say for argument's sake this tape is admissible in the court. The lawyer who uses it early on merely offers the jury an ambiguous, paradoxical statement, but by leaving it till later after so much more information has been provided, it leaves us feeling that for all the ambiguity in the statement, within the wider context it seems like Harris is confessing to the crime. It passes for a courtroom clincher; the piece of evidence that can get your client released. When Nichols talks about the moment's placing within the film's narrative, we can see that narrative can be used in a broader sense than its cinematic specificity. This is narrative as ordering. As Gilberto Perez says in The Material Ghost: "that telling a story and counting things are related acts is suggested by the words we have for them. To tell can also mean to count; a teller can be one who tells or one who counts. To recount means to tell a tale as well as to count again." Now in a fiction film we expect a scene that will win the case, a moment that the lawyer pulls out of the bag when it looks like their client will be going to the chair, and even if the best law dramas refuse the ease of such a convention, they nevertheless do so within dramatic expectations that make us feel the drama being played out and not the mind of the filmmaker organizing the material.
In Twelve Angry Men, for example, the purpose is to show the American justice system as fair and necessary: that unless all twelve members of the jury agree a man cannot be convicted. In the film eleven are ready to convict, but Henry Fonda believes the accused teen is not guilty beyond reasonable doubt, and the rest of the film focuses on his capacity to persuade the others. In Anatomy of a Murder, James Stewart may or may not have a guilty man to defend (Ben Gazzara's character doesn't deny the killing, but claims he has no memory of it), but what matters is that justice is seen to be done, If the law cannot say for sure whether the person was in charge of his faculties during the event, then justice cannot condemn him to death. Both films concern themselves not with the question of guilt or innocence, but justice. Partly why they are so highly regarded is that they take the conventions of courtroom drama and instil within them doubt.
Morris's film is an inversion of such an approach, where justice hasn't at all been done and where Morris's intelligence must find a way of retaining the ambiguous nature of the finest law films while at the same time indicating this is not a film about the law but a documentary on its absence. If Twelve Angry Men initially suggests there is nothing wrong with the law system but there is a problem with individuals outside it called upon to sit on a jury where their interest is in getting to a ball game over working through the evidence, Morris shows that in Texas there is an injustice system at work. The ambiguity isn't the healthy haziness of the unknown factors that lead a jury to accept that they cannot find someone guilty because the evidence isn't unequivocal enough. No, it is the ambiguity of doubting the system itself, a much more vertiginous and pressing problem than a man who might be guilty who is back on the street. The former indicates corruption; the latter merely criminality.
Partly what makes Morris's intelligence so pronounced in The Thin Blue Line (as well as in numerous other works), is that he tries to find authority out of ambiguity, tries to find a truth amongst contrary perspectives that would themselves seem to undermine Truth. When Rafferty invokes Borges in his article on the film, it resides in Morris's capacity to work through perspectives that constantly call truth into question, but he possesses within the Borgesian a documentarist's need to find truths that can be uncovered. There is no doubt for example that Morris believes Adams to be innocent here; that he is unequivocal about the death camps that central figure Fred Leuchter denies in Mr Death, the abuses that took place in Abu Ghraib in Standard Operating Procedure; of the horrors of the Iraq war in the Donald Rumsfeld film The Unknown Known. During one moment in the latter film Morris cuts from Rumsfeld talking about a soldier who looks like he might die and yet survives, to images of numerous gravestones emphasizing that many didn't. Morris allows Rumsfeld his say, but won't allow it to pass for the last word when a truth is so clearly being denied.
In a Vice Podcast talking about The Unknown Known Morris says that over his many years as a documentarist he has interviewed numerous self-deceived people, including mass murderers, Holocaust deniers, fantasists of every description. But nobody more deluded than Rumsfeld as he describes it as deeply de-stabilizing experience both for him and for the US. It is as though the local corruption he exposes in The Thin Blue Line is the national ethical collapse he sees in The Unknown Known. In an interview with Morris for The Telegraph, Adam Higgenbottom says that making the film about Rumsfeld "forced Morris to reassess his opinion of those elected to high office. Some, he now thinks, really are as foolhardy, shallow and morally bankrupt as they seem." Partly what makes people stupid in Morris's perception is their inability to see the complexity out of which truth comes. Rumsfeld was known not so much for the intricacy of his statements; more for the tortured nature of his syntax and his ability to give the impression of great wisdom while hiding under statements of baffling obscurity. There is the famous Unknown Knowns: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." Others include: "I can't tell you if the use of force in Iraq today will take five days, five weeks, or five months, but it won't last any longer than that." Or "If in doubt, don't. If still in doubt, do what's right." This is bumper sticker thinking that the more you think about it the less it means. Morris has so little respect for Rumsfeld partly because he uses language to obfuscate rather than reveal; to hide truths rather than arduously to find them. What does Rumsfeld mean when he says the use of force might take five days, five weeks or five months, but it won't take any longer than that? The only way in which such a statement can possess any validity is if Rumsfeld knew that five months was the absolute limit, and if Iraq hadn't fallen by then the US would be pulling out. But instead it is offered by a man who doesn't see the possibility of failure, but one who can see into the future and see success.
Though Morris comes across as an assertive, even arrogant figure when interviewed, quite happy to contradict a question without making any attempt to soften his response, it would be unfair to assume this is Morris scoring a point; it seems more his determination to make one. When the interviewer in the Vice podcast feels that there is a moment when Rumsfeld looks like he is showing signs of regret concerning the Iraq war, Morris rails against him wondering if he's seen the film Morris has made. Yet this is not the approach Morris takes when making the films themselves. Unlike John Pilger whose interview technique with people he believes are corrupt, prevaricating or smug, is to bully them into defeat, or Nick Broomfield, who happily harasses those who won't readily speak to him, Morris seeks complicity and even intimacy. As Morris says in a Senses of Cinema interview about The Fog of War: "I've also been criticised by American audiences who believe that I haven't been hard enough on him [Robert McNamara), and I'd like to point out that I have a different philosophy on how to interview people. I worked as a private detective for many years. I was an out-of-work filmmaker, and the only way that I could make a living was as a private detective. And I found that, as a detective, I was doing much the same thing that I did as a filmmaker, which was basically listening to people."
Central to Morris's truth-seeking is his ability to forestall judgement as a filmmaker. This doesn't mean in their own way Pilger and Broomfield aren't seeking truths, and aren't finding them, but the truths they find seem less obviously based on intelligence and complexity, than assertiveness, in the former instance, and bufoonery and provocation in the latter. Broomfield likes nothing more than to set what he calls an elephant trap: here he will arrive late for an interview, for example, with someone who hates lateness, and Broomfield gets the angry interview he seeks. Pilger often goes for the stern dismissal, interviewing figure like Alan Clarke with the intention of catching them out. When he talks to Clark about his interest in animal welfare while at the same time supplying weapons to a government in Indonesia and resulting in the horrible oppression of the people of East Timor, Pilger wonders whether if he has a problem with a sympathy for animals that doesn't extend to people, albeit foreigners. Clark answers: curiously not. Pilger goes not to learn, but to entrap, and that isn't at all a bad interview technique when you want to show up the bad faith of numerous politicians'. This often takes a shot/counter shot format that shows Pilger getting the better of his opponent. In Broomfield's case it is based on a film frame that is constantly decomposing as Broomfield runs after his subject hounding them for an interview, or where at any moment he feels like they might walk out of the interview they have offered him.
Morris's approach has been to let the person talk: to keep the camera running and see what happens when people become comfortable rather than uncomfortable. For this end he utilises what is called the interrotron, a camera set-up that allows the interviewer to look directly at the person interviewing him, but at the same time to be looking directly at the camera. It can give to Morris's interviews a complicity as the subject being interviewed doesn't feel they are talking to a camera but talking to a person, and can give to the audience the sense that the interviewee is talking directly to them instead of the viewer feeling like a third party witnessing a discussion between others. It is more than just the technology however; the capacity to extract personal interviews out of people is evident from his first film long before he utilised the Interrotron, Gates of Heaven, about pet cemeteries, or Vernon, Florida There are scenes with one of the grown-up sons in the former film where we feel the character reckons he has found a friend in the filmmaker. While the father and older son are go-get 'em all American entrepreneurs, making money out of dead animals, the younger son is looking for a bit of space to reflect and play his electric guitar. Morris lets him talk, and, in one scene looking over the valley, the young man plays it as if a cry for help.
Again we sense Morris making a point rather than scoring one, and this is finally perhaps where we can see his intelligence at work. Like most great documentarians he wants not to win an argument, but set out the terms by which it can be developed and comprehended. These terms can in the best documentarian's work seem antithetical, but they coincide on this point. Marker's films for example are much more ostensibly subjective than Morris's, reliant far more on a voice-over of ideas, but this is one of the two valid ways in which one can argue philosophically within documentary. If Bill Nichols is correct to think in terms of an axiographic dimension to non-fiction filmmaking, a philosophical exploration through the time and space of documentary, what are the most productive modes these can take? Nichols says in Representing Reality: "Axiographics would address the question of how values, particularly an ethics of representation. comes to be known and experienced in relation to space." The two we can think of are what we'll call the 'socratic; and the 'perspectival': one close to the Platonic dialogue; the other Nietzschean singularities. The former searches out a truth; the latter a perception. Though Marker has made documentaries bordering on the investigative (The Last Bolshevik), his main purpose seems to be to generate fresh perceptions. "What interests me is history", Marker says, "and politics interests me only to the degree that it represents the mark history makes on the present. With an obsessive curiosity (if I identify with any of Kipling's characters, it's the Elephant Boy of the Just-So Stories, because of his "insatiable curiosity") I keep asking: How do people manage to live in such a world? And that's where my mania comes from, to see "how things are going" in this place or that." "For a long time", he says, "those who were best placed to see "how it's going" didn't have access to the tools to give form to their perceptionsand perception without form is tiring. (Film Comment)
Morris is more interested in truth than perspective, so much so that he often interviews people for whom perspective is lost. This is why he talks about often interviewing self-deluded subjects: it isn't their perspective that interests him, but their delusional dimension which stops the truth from presenting itself. If The Thin Blue Line remains his most important film and the one to which this piece is chiefly focused, it lies in its Rashomon-like approach to contrary narratives, but not because it wants to arrive at the radically ambiguous (did even Kurosawa?) where everyone has their perspective, but to say that out of these debased perspectives a truth can be found.
This is why Morris is very good at making points rather than scoring them, why he gives his documentary subjects space to talk, but doesn't assume that in giving them this space they are simply offering a point of view as valid as the next man's. He acknowledges the validity personally (he doesn't simply mock it), but we also need to be aware that this personal perspective his subjects offer is often probIematic. In The Thin Blue Line, for example, the judge Don Metcalfe explains that he never usually gets emotional during a case, but when the DA Douglas Mulder talked of the thin blue line that happens to be the police force, protecting the people from criminality, his eyes welled up. We can understand the judge's perspective, but find the emotive manipulation that leads a man in the direction of the electric chair, horrifying. It's as if the judge is watching a movie in which he himself happens to be in; the big emotional moment where the lawyer sums up and the audience is in tears. Another of the interviewees, Emily Miller, whose testimony guaranteed Adams' guilt, talks of loving TV crime thrillers as Morris cuts to footage of various TV shows. Is she too in a film of her own making: one that just so happens to be life, and in consequence possibly another's death? We can understand their perspective, but that doesn't at all make it a valid one. Morris later suggests, through other characters, that Miller's testimony may well have helped her daughter escape a felony charge. (The charges were then dropped.)
These are in Morris's eyes, weak perspectives, while Adams' and the DA defence lawyer, Dennis White, would certainly be offering powerful ones. Adams possess a strong alibi, a consistent argument and explains how he was forced into signing a document that was misleading. As White says that some policemen set the wheels of justice in motion in a particular direction and the wheels ended up moving so fast that little could be done about it", White becomes so disillusioned that he stopped practising criminal law, and whatever reservations Morris might have over this early retirement, we feel that White's disillusionment is a lot healthier than the delusions of others, and a lot less dangerous.
There are easy ways in which a filmmaker can point score rather than making points. A reason why many are wary of Michael Moore's documentaries is that he doesn't lay out the problem looking to make a point, but masks half of a problem to score one, or will set up a complex problem and arrive at a facile solution as we find in Fahrenheit 9/11. "We are introduced to Iraq, "a sovereign nation." (In fact, Iraq's "sovereignty" was heavily qualified by international sanctions, however questionable, which reflected its noncompliance with important U.N. resolutions.)", Christopher Hitchens said in Slate magazine. "In this peaceable kingdom, according to Moore's flabbergasting choice of film shots, children are flying little kites, shoppers are smiling in the sunshine, and the gentle rhythms of life are undisturbed. Thenwham! From the night sky come the terror weapons of American imperialism." We might have various problems with Hitchen's article (and his stance in the Iraq War) but this is typical Moore. You want to score a point about American bullying and thus have to remove the fact that the country the US was invading was being run by a bully. The footage is there not to understand the complexity of the situation, but to allow for a simple-minded response. One doesn't have to be a supporter of the invasion to find such footage troublesome; merely a respect for documentary intricacy will do.
To make a point rather than scoring one it isn't enough to make one's case; the filmmaker has to argue their corner or present all the givens of a situation to understand the problem addressed. In the former instance it is often enough for the director to find an angle and pursue it. If Werner Herzog were to rail against the planet's collapse under modern society's abuses, we wouldn't expect pie charts and line graphs; we would expect that lament to find its correlative in the image: with Herzog majestically wandering around the Amazonian, finding the images he thinks seat deeply inside us and that are in danger of vanishing. This would be Nietzschean perspectivism, not Socratic truth-seeking. Al Gore making An Inconvenient Truth on the other hand is expected to provide facts, and erroneous information can result in a legal issue. Thus while the film was "broadly accurate" in its presentation of climate change, a judge identified nine significant errors in the film, some of which, he said, had arisen in "the context of alarmism and exaggeration" to support the former US vice-president's views on climate change." On deciding whether or not the film could be shown in British schools as a factual account of climate change, "the judge ruled that the film can still be shown in schools, as part of a climate change resources pack, but only if it is accompanied by fresh guidance notes to balance Mr Gore's "one-sided" views. The "apocalyptic vision" presented in the film was not an impartial analysis of the science of climate change." (Guardian) Like Morris, Gore is making a case, and it is a case whose validity rests on the apparent objectivity of the information, not the subjectivity of one's position that is singular.
Many of the great modern documentarians are not seeking this objective truth, but are searching out instead a meditative singularity, whether it be Herzog's Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World, these are almost literally polar opposites but similar works: films that show people at one end of the world or the other escaping civilization. Herzog looks for characters that are surrogates for himself: other obsessives seeking solitude and adventure. The objectivity isn't what matter, but the investment in other's subjectivity. Herzog's documentaries often feel like a variation of Flaubert's famous "I am Madame Bovary". As Herzog says of Grizzly Man: "I have the impression that characters like Timothy Treadwell come across me." (Guardian)
It is true Morris occasionally makes similar comments about his own documentary subjects. On Mr Death he said [central figure and maker of execution equipment] "Fred is not disinterested, he is passionate and involved. Fred is committed. And there's something quite interesting about that as well. I'm hard-pressed to tell you what exactly it is, but it still fascinates me... Maybe I share some of it." (Bomb) But he also talks about the idea of making films where truth cannot be ignored; that it isn't simply about a matter of perspective and identification. "My wife has this one line: "Whatever Hitler is, he is not a spice." When you add Hitler as an ingredient to anything it becomes Hitler flavored; he dominates everything. It would have destroyed [his film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control] essentially. It's the difference between providing a portrait of someone where you can reconstruct their world without answering the question; Is what they believe true or false? Whereas in Mr. Death, Leuchter indeed makes a number of erroneous factual claims, factual claims that people care passionately about." (Bomb). As in The Thin Blue Line, Standard Operating Procedure, The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, Morris is seeking truths and perhaps sees in this search his training in analytic philosophy rather than in the continental tradition, where truth is much more contentious and where the philosopher wants to overturn certitude evident in the work of Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida. We simplify, but certainly analytic philosophy is more concerned with right and wrong answers, and this is what Morris is drawn to as well, but without doing so hastily or without first of all examining the milieu out of which the 'error' comes. He is sympathetic to Leuchter's need to belong, but insistent that when this desire to belong leads to getting in bed with Holocaust deniers then Leuchter's perspective needs to be contextualized by others that show how wrong-headed he happens to be. Morris doesn't score points off Leuchter's naivety; he makes a point of wandering just how much people seem to need love and will go to the most appalling places to find it. Of course not everyone will see the film this way. Morris's need to give his subjects their say can lead viewers to reading the film against the director's intentions: "To me it was quite clear that the movie was filled with irony, and that there was a story embodied in what Fred said without having to add any external commentary. But judging from people's reactions after watching the film, it became clear I was wrong. People bought into Fred's story, hook, line and sinker. They began to wonder, Why didn't he find cyanide in the brickwork at Auschwitz? And was there poison gas used at Birkenau? That response was unacceptable to me."
Yet it is a risk he is consistently willing to make, one so complete that where Morris saw The Thin Blue Line as a film about helping Randall Adams released from prison, Adams, when a free man, saw Morris's film as exploiting his life story and consequently sued him. Morris sees the film one way; Adams another. Yet the truth was that Morris's film was central to getting Adams released; Adams belief that Morris had exploited him no more than an opinion, and one Morris reckons was arrived at by lawyers looking to exploit Adams much more than Morris happened to be. ""My belief is that the lawyer made him think he had been taken advantage of by me," the director says. "He had a drinking problem that he never conquered completely. He was not a bad guy. The lawsuit was just sad. I, like everybody else, heard about his death after the fact. I had always dreamed that we would get reconciled and have an opportunity to talk to each other and figure it all out. But that was not to be. I feel that lack of resolution." (Independent)
On Unknown Known, Morris might believe that Rumsfeld was a vacuous figure and not especially bright, but people coming away from the film see a smart and sympathetic man. As Andrew O'Heir says in Salon: "Well, part of the humor I was talking about comes from the fact that I could almost enjoy the absurdity of this guy, the clueless detached absurdity, if I didn't understand on some level that it came with enormous human costs. There's something essentially comic about that, my desire to empathize with this person or like him, coupled with what I actually know about what he has done."
Vital to Morris's aesthetic, though, is this potential misunderstanding, this notion that if the viewer doesn't go to the bottom of the problem, then they will miss out on the truth to be found in the film and arrive merely at a perspective upon it. When Morris angrily turns on the Podcast interviewer who sees a redemptive moment in The Unknown Known, Morris presses him to say where and when, if he believes there is something redemptive about it. He is saying to the interviewer that while Rumsfeld might be having a teary-eyed moment this doesn't mean the film wants the viewer to have one also. That isn't the same thing as saying that we should laugh at Rumsfeld's emotional reaction to the American war-injured either. To laugh would be an extension of the callousness Morris sees fundamentally at work in a man who views American lost lives as tragic and Vietnamese and Iraqi deaths as stats. When Rumsfeld says some things work out and some things don't, Morris, in interviews says, "it's extraordinary in its emptiness. It's staggeringly vapid, or to use one of my favourite words, jejune." To laugh at Rumsfeld when he gets emotional at American deaths would be as insensitive to American lives as Rumsfeld is to Vietnamese and Iraqi ones. The appropriate response is a sad realization that not all lives are equal, or even close to it, in the Rumsfeld emotional lexicon. We ought to respond as we would to a cliche; at its inadequacy.
It is finally this notion of the adequate that appears to interest Morris: what is an adequate idea of a given situation or experience. Many of the people involved in Randall Adams's prosecution in The Thin Blue Line, Rumsfeld's explanations and justifications in The Unknown Known, the positivist simple-mindedness of Leuchter looking for evidence of the Holocaust in Auschwitz, the puffed-up pride of the older brother in Gates of Heaven, seem incapable of seeing a broader perspective than their own, or are unwilling to see a truth that is more pertinent than their own view of events. If many see The Thin Blue Line as Morris's masterpiece it rests on the combination of various Morris preoccupations with a truth revealed so unequivocally that a man was released from prison on the back of those revealed truths. It also resides of course in the form the manner in which he manages to use reenactments of key moments not for dramatic excitement, but for a puzzling sense of visualizing lies that are presented as truths. There is also Philip Glass's insistent score, ominously moving through the film like the obsessive Morris often insists himself to be. It is as if music serves a certain narrational function that Morris refuses to provide in voice-over; it gives the film a voice without individualizing it. He would use Glass again on A Brief History of Time and The Fog of War, but it is in The Thin Blue Line that the music most completely reflects Morris's mindset. It is a mind that by showing a fascination with individual perspectives however erroneous, and truths no matter how concealed, arrives at a properly epistemological form, a demanding axiographics that pursues questions of ethics, identity, belief and purpose without assuming they are relative. As Morris (whose private investigator work we shouldn't forget) says: "...to me, truth is a pursuit"
© Tony McKibbin