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‘The Thin Blue Line': Justice for All? : An inside look at why a documentary that had real-life impact didn’t make the cut in the Oscar race

The New York Film Critics Circle named it the best feature documentary of 1988. The National Board of Review gave it the D. W. Griffith Award for the same reason. In four different newspaper polls of the nation’s critics, it placed first as the best film of the year, feature or documentary.

Last fall, the Independent Documentary Assn., an organization composed of people involved in the medium, gave it one of its five fraternal “IDA” awards for distinguished achievement. And last week, due to evidence collected in the making of the movie, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned a verdict that had put the subject of the film on Death Row 12 years ago.

If there was ever a film with a lock on an Academy Award, Erroll Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” appeared to be it. It had a profound topic, overwhelming critical acclaim and the kind of respectful media coverage that benefits the entire industry. Morris himself was the subject of a 15,000-word profile in New Yorker magazine, and there were those in Hollywood who thought he might become the first person to receive a best director nomination for a documentary.

But when the Oscar nominations were announced last month, the names of Morris and “The Thin Blue Line” were nowhere to be found, a fact that shocked critics and finlm makers alike.

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“It is one of the most outrageous things in the modern history of the academy,” said English director Michael Apted, who has made both features (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas in the Mist”) and documentaries (“28 Up”). “For my money, it was the best piece of film in any category. That they ignored it diminishes the academy.”

Film critic Roger Ebert, who lists Morris’ 1979 “Gates of Heaven” as one of the 10 best films ever made, called the slighting of “The Thin Blue Line” “the worst non-nomination” of the year and attributed its rejection to the inability of academy voters to appreciate innovative film making.

“If (Morris) had done a ’60 Minutes’ documentary with talking heads, film clips and conventional narration, they would have nominated it,” Ebert said.

Perhaps they would have. In interviews with several of the 40 members of the academy’s documentary committee, the film’s style--its blend of interviews, reenactments and fetishist-like close-ups of police lights, pistols and other murder scene objects--was often mentioned as being off-putting.

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“I think this is a case of the emperor has no clothes,” said one documentary film maker on the committee. “I was shocked that the film had gotten all that attention, and my own evaluation was so different. The critical accolades were stunningly different from what I observed.”

From interviews done for this story, it doesn’t appear that “The Thin Blue Line” even came close to receiving a nomination. All but one of the members interviewed said they did not consider it one of the five best films they saw. In fact, at the committee screening of “The Thin Blue Line,” enough members raised their hands to have the film stopped before it was completed.

It is a common democratic procedure, committee members explained, to have a film turned off when enough of them request it. It is a process that one member described as “dumping,” something that occurs frequently when there’s a heavy workload.

Arthur Nadel, chairman of the academy’s documentary committee, said 74 films were submitted this year, adding up to between 100 and 150 hours of viewing, if each one was played to the end.

How much of “The Thin Blue Line” did the committee see before they dumped it?

“It was 85% of the way through,” one member in attendance that night said. “Some of us stayed and they showed the rest of it. But it’s unfair to say the others might have voted differently if they’d watched it all. The film was not liked.”

Chuck Workman, whose “Precious Images” won him an Oscar in 1986 (in the short films-live action category), said he considered “The Thin Blue Line” one of the best films of the year and that he was surprised it did not get nominated. But Workman said he did not think there was anything political in the rejection.

“There is very little politics involved in that group,” he said. “They have minds of their own and vote the way they see it. A lot of people just didn’t like the movie.”

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Nominations for documentaries, both shorts and features, involve preliminary and final voting. After each screening, members evaluate the film on a scale of 4 to 10 and jot their ratings down in booklets that remain with the academy. After they’ve seen all of the submitted films, they get together for a day to discuss what they’ve seen (“We argue and lobby each other,” one member said), then they vote again. Only the final votes, which are turned over immediately to Price-Waterhouse, count. (Voting for the actual Oscar is done by all academy members, who validate their attendance at screenings of all five nominees.)

At this year’s wrap-up nominations meeting, “The Thin Blue Line” was hardly discussed, members say.

“It was discussed only in the sense that there was so much negative feeling about it,” Workman said. “It was pretty much dismissed.”

So, how does a film steamroll critics, woo audiences (“The Thin Blue Line” grossed $1.5 million, which is considered good for a documentary) and get a warm reception on newspaper op-ed pages, only to feel an Arctic breeze emerge from the academy?

Theories abound:

--The film had too much publicity. It was overhyped by the distributors and set itself up for a fall.

--Miramax Films, which holds the worldwide theatrical and videocassette rights to it, pushed too hard in its Academy Award campaign. In suggesting it in trade ads for consideration as both best picture and best documentary feature, it sent a signal to the committee members that the film was worthy of more than they could give it.

--The film was too slick, it had too much production for its own good.

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--The academy voters are too old and too narrow in their views of documentaries to accept Morris’ innovative style, and many of them do not have the expertise to judge.

The committee members who did not vote for “The Thin Blue Line” dismiss all of these notions.

“I think (the distributors) set the film up as a shoo-in and that it created an expectation among members that the film couldn’t meet,” said Mitchell Block, whose Direct Cinema distributes documentaries. “But there was no backlash. As a group, we simply thought the five nominated films were better.”

As for the critics, Block said they have no cause for outrage: “How can they say ‘Thin Blue Line’ is the best documentary of the year when they haven’t even seen the five that were nominated? They can say ‘Rain Man’ is the best movie if they’ve seen all the features, but they can’t say they know better than we do if they haven’t seen what we’ve seen.”

Ebert concedes that point to Block, but won’t concede to those members who said film critics get caught up in the emotion of a movie and overlook its structural flaws.

“There is a strong impulse in America to want a movie to tell a story, with none of the stylistic elements . . . to distract you,” Ebert said. “We now have all these movies that are totally narrative. People are resistant to movies like ‘The Thin Blue Line’ that break that narrative reverie. I think that’s what happened (in that committee).”

The makeup of the documentary committee is cited by some as its strength and by others as its weakness.

“We have producers, directors, camera people, actors, film editors--all kinds of extraordinary talents who have the dedication to commit to seeing all these films,” said chairman Nadel. “They bring a lot of knowledge to the (nominations process).”

Workman said he believes the committee would be more effective if its makeup were less heterogenous.

“I think the intentions of everyone on the committee are very good,” he said. “Their tastes are their own, and not necessarily enlightened. I just wish there were more film makers involved.”

The committee is composed of academy members who volunteer for the job and are then selected by the chairman. Nadel, who took over from Norman Corwin last year, will not discuss committee membership, but other members estimated that more than half are older than 65 and that there are only four who are under 50.

One other theory raised to explain the fate of “The Thin Blue Line” is that it was a victim of timing. Because it was one of the last of the 74 films shown to the committee, maybe the members were too weary to give it the attention it needs.

The last 10 minutes of the movie includes what amounts to a confession by the real killer. Yet, enough members at the committee screening apparently were ready to stop the film before there was a hint of the third-act revelation.

Nadel would not comment on how or why films are stopped, but two members emphasized that the decision to dump is “democratic,” implying that if one more than 50% of the viewers raise their hands, the projector is turned off. In any event, when the hands went up at the screening of “The Thin Blue Line,” there was apparently no opposition.

Morris, who is in Los Angeles attempting to parlay the success of “The Thin Blue Line” into a feature film assignment, refused to be drawn into the Oscar debate, saying he had received his award when the Texas appeals court overturned the conviction of Randall Adams.

“My main concern from the beginning has been to get Randall Adams out of prison,” Morris said. “What this film has done for me has been enormous. The fact that I’ve been involved in a case like this and have had an impact on it has been reward enough.”

Nevertheless, Morris acknowledged that it would have been nice to stand before the world and thank the people who made it possible--"Sue Weil at PBS, who believed in me and the project and found a way to keep us going when no one else was willing; Lindsay Law at American Playhouse, who got involved and made it possible for me to do the re-enactments, to hire (composer) Philip Glass and turn the interview material into a movie. . . . “

Morris, who has worked as a private investigator between documentaries, said he and Randall Adams are “ahead of the game,” that he’s got a new lease on his film career and Adams a new lease on life. But that’s not enough for those people who think their victory should have been toasted with an Oscar.

“His film is as good a look at that part of America as I have ever seen,” said director Michael Apted, pointing out that the academy bestowed a batch of nominations (seven) on “Mississippi Burning” while ignoring a documentary that puts the spotlight on a more recent example of Southern injustice. “It’s shameful that fellow members in the industry don’t give it the acknowledgement it deserves.”

The final upshot of “The Thin Blue Line"--the overturned conviction--came after the Oscar nominations were announced. Workman wonders how his colleagues on the committee felt as they read the front-page news stories about that ruling.

“I think those people are embarrassed now,” Workman said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if every time you see (the Randall Adams case) mentioned, it says, ‘The Academy Award-nominated film’?”

But another member seemed to be speaking for the majority when he said, “I’m thrilled that an innocent man is going to get out of jail. But that doesn’t mean a badly made picture should get an Oscar . . . or even a nomination.”


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