Errol Morris: The Thinking Man’s Detective

The documentary filmmaker has become America’s most surprising and provocative public intellectual

You probably know Errol Morris as an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. Roger Ebert called his first film, Gates of Heaven, one of "the ten greatest films ever made." (Dina Rudick / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)
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As one commenter wrote:

“Don’t miss the excursus on the use of albatross eggs to provide the albumen for photo emulsions in early film developing. Or the meditation on Descartes’ Meditations. Or the succinct and devastating deconstruction of deconstructionists’ dim witted view of truth (just because we can’t necessarily know it, they rashly conclude it doesn’t exist). This leads to his critique of the correlative misreading of the film Rashomon [it’s not an ‘all points of view are equally valid’ manifesto] and his desire, expressed in a footnote, for a Rashomon about Rashomon.”

OK, that was me, writing back in 2007 when the series first appeared.

One of Morris’ advantages in his investigations is his disarming personal style. He’s a friendly, genial-looking, unpretentious guy, who reminds me of the old “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and Alec Guinness’ amazing, offhandedly profound portrait of the disarmingly unassuming, apparently empathetic George Smiley. And it occurred to me that in his own way, Morris is our Smiley. Robert McNamara, for instance, thought Morris understood him. And he did—just not the way McNamara understood himself.

But as wily as Morris is, I was worried when he told me about his latest obsession: the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case. “Oh my God, no,” was my measured reaction, “Not that!”

For the past four decades the MacDonald affair has been a toxic swamp that has drawn in some of journalism’s best and brightest writers.

“Yes, that,” Morris replied, telling me that MacDonald is the subject of his next book, titled A Wilderness of Error. In fact, he said, the book is the culmination of 20 years of fascination with the case, going back to a time in the early ’90s when Morris and his wife visited wig shops in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to investigate the wig-fiber evidence at the MacDonald crime scene. He is not a MacDonald partisan in that he doesn’t necessarily believe prosecutorial errors are proof of innocence, rather evidence of uncertainty.

If Errol Morris is that excited about the MacDonald case, it’s a sign we can’t say “Case closed.”

It is, you’ll remember, one of the past half century’s most controversial murder mysteries. The central question remains in dispute: Is MacDonald an innocent man wrongly convicted of murder or is he the ultimate con man?

It began in 1970 and soon became a national scandal widely known as the “Green Beret murder case.” MacDonald, then a Green Beret doctor with an unblemished record, was accused of murdering his wife and two young daughters in his home at Fort Bragg, a key Green Beret base. MacDonald blamed the crime instead on a band of hippies—including a woman in a floppy hat and blond wig—whom he claimed he unsuccessfully fought off as they invaded his home chanting, “Kill the pigs!...Acid is groovy!”

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