The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988, was the first film the brought documentarian Errol Morris to major public attention. Organized by Executive Producer Lindsay Law for the American Playhouse series on Public Television and subsequently distributed to movie houses, the film was a compelling documentary of the case of Randall Adams, who had been convicted of the murder of a police officer in Dallas County, Texas. The Trivia page for this film in The Internet Movie Database provides some interesting items concerning both the nature and the impact of Morris' effort:
- Errol Morris spent 2-1/2 years tracking down the various players in the Randall Adams case and convincing them to appear in the film.
- In light of the new evidence uncovered by the film, an evidentiary hearing was held. David Harris testified, recanting his earlier testimony against Randall Adams. "Randall Adams knew nothing about this offense and was not in the car at the time," Harris testified. Adams' capital murder verdict was overturned, and he was released from prison in March 1989.
The grounds for that evidentiary hearing basically involved the extent to which Morris' film had demonstrated that Randall Adams had been convicted by a corrupt justice system, meaning that the whole case, beginning with the charge against him, needed to be reexamined.
However, there are two other items on the Trivia page that cannot be ignored:
- The release of this film resulted in 'Randall Adams' (I)' case being reopened. He was exonerated. He then filed suit against filmmaker Errol Morris over the rights to his life.
- David Harris, at age 43, was executed by lethal injection on 6/30/04 in Huntsville, TX, for murdering a man, Mark Mays, during an attempted kidnapping. That crime occurred on 9/1/85, and was unrelated to Harris's murder of the police officer discussed in this film. The Mays case was mentioned in the film, in which Harris was wounded in the neck before the victim was killed.
People like to watch movies, including documentaries, for their narrative qualities, the most important of which is a satisfying sense of closure by the end of the film. Since closure is rarely such a neat matter in the life-world, the demands of narrative often trump the constraints of reality in even the best of documentaries. This painful fact of life has come back to bite Morris in his latest effort, Standard Operating Procedure, although the lawsuit from the man who was exonerated due to his efforts was probably an equally unpleasant unintended consequence.
What happens, however, when the justice system is confronted by a fiction, which never claims to be anything more than based on a case that has not yet been closed? This was basically the situation with the 2006 film, Alpha Dog, both written and directed by Nick Cassavetes; and the consequences of this production may well form the basis for another narrative. A first cut at that narrative has now been provided in a story by Chris Summers for BBC NEWS. Some of this material can be found on the Alpha Dog Trivia page in the Internet Movie Database, but there is a lot more flesh to Summers' account.
At the heart of Summers' narrative is Michael Mehas, who served as Cassavetes' research assistant. Cassavetes had decided to make a film based on a crime story, which Summers summarized as follows:
When the body of 15-year-old Nick Markowitz was discovered in a shallow grave just outside Los Angeles in August 2000, it set in train a saga which is still unfolding.
The boy was the brother of a small-time drug dealer and it emerged he had been killed after a dispute over $2,000 (£1,000) worth of marijuana.
Four young men from the prosperous San Fernando Valley were arrested and, with emotions running high in the area, were convicted. Three were jailed for life but 21-year-old Ryan Hoyt was sentenced to death.
It emerged during their trial that Nick had been held hostage for several days, before being bound with duct tape, struck over the head with a shovel and shot several times.
All four said they acted out of fear of the gang's leader, Jesse James Hollywood.
Fugitive from justice
He had vanished after reading in a newspaper about the body being found.
Summers then describes Mehas' activities for Cassavetes:
While researching the film - and writing a book, Stolen Boy, which came out of his research - Mr Mehas contacted the Santa Barbara District Attorney's office and spoke to Ron Zonen, who was keen to track down Hollywood.
Mr Mehas said: "He wanted to use the film as a sort of global wanted poster to help find Hollywood and bring him back to face justice."
Mr Zonen handed over virtually all his case files to Mr Mehas.
But before the film came out Hollywood, who had been on the FBI's Most Wanted list, was captured in a surfing resort in Brazil in 2005 and extradited back to California.
At this point the narrative shifts its focus from Hollywood, now charged with the Markowitz murder, to his defense attorney:
His lawyer, James Blatt, soon discovered the cosy relationship between the prosecutors and the film-makers and kicked up a fuss about it.
Attempts were made to prevent the film's release until after Hollywood's trial. In the event the film came out last year to mixed reviews.
Mr Blatt then sought to throw Mr Zonen and his colleagues off the case, claiming their integrity had been compromised.
He said it was the first time a prosecutor had effectively acted as a "co-producer of a film" based on a case he was due to bring to trial.
Mr Blatt told the BBC News website: "Any time you have a major motion picture presenting the district attorney's viewpoint of the case it may have a damaging impact on the chances of someone receiving a fair trial."
Thus far Blatt's case has proceeded as far as the California Supreme Court:
Earlier in May, the California Supreme Court rejected his arguments to have Mr Zonen and his colleagues thrown off the case but he has 90 days to decide whether to appeal to the US Supreme Court.
But Mr Zonen, who has now in fact been replaced on the case, was criticised by the California Supreme Court judges, who said: "We find his actions in turning over his case files... highly inappropriate and disturbing". However, they accepted his motives were honourable - to find Hollywood.
I find the parallel between the two films an interesting one. Both were ultimately concerned with seeing justice properly served. The documentary basically undertook research to reopen the case and used the resulting film to present it argument to the "court of public opinion." The fiction, on the other hand, was dealing with a case that had not yet been entirely closed; and Zonen's motives basically involved using the public exposure of the film to help locate the remaining prime suspect. Nevertheless, Blatt's argument about whether or not that suspect can now receive a fair trial is a valid one. I have written before about how easy it is to confuse a well-dramatized fiction with reality; and, whatever its box office numbers may have been (not particularly outstanding under Hollywood logic), Alpha Dog was definitely a compelling piece of work. Given that it has now received international and cable distribution, I can imagine that it will be very difficult to find a jury not aware of how Hollywood was portrayed, particularly since the actor was Justin Timberlake. Thus, Summers' narrative is far from a point of closure; and I suspect that, if that closure is ever reached, there will be more than enough material to make another film.