Morris’ 1988 film is arguably among only a handful of documentaries of the past century that crossed over in something of a lasting way into the popular mainstream’s consciousness. Chiefly, this is due to its real world impact, helping to re-open the case it documents and exonerate an innocent man. While it resonated with the industry, winning numerous film critic circle awards, it was disqualified for an Oscar nomination due to a strange technicality, considered “non-fiction” instead of “documentary” for some reason.
The film details the investigation of the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood involving Randall Dale Adams, a drifter, and David Harris, a teen runaway. Through interviews and re-enactments based on witness and investigator testimony (innovative at the time), Morris reconstructs the different versions of Wood’s shooting death and builds a case against the prevailing theory that led to Adams conviction and death sentence. Morris’ storytelling techniques have since become commonplace, but, at the time, they brought a dynamism and immediacy to what might have been little more than a segment on a news magazine program. I’m almost always against the use of re-enactments in documentary, but there are always exceptions, and while Morris can’t be said to be the first to employ them, he incorporates them in a skillful and deliberate manner that, most importantly, fit the crux of his film – the crime investigation. But it’s a crime investigation that is highly stylized both in visuals and in its Philip Glass composed score – a film noir documentary that was elevated beyond the realm of a nightly news report to achieve an artfulness and potency that had direct, real life consequences.