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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“There are too many coincidences,” Morris says. “For instance, it just so happens that the first officer, the officer who heard [MacDonald’s] statement [about the woman in the floppy hat], noticed on his way to the crime scene a woman who answered to that description standing in the rain and fog at 3 in the morning. He couldn’t stop because he was answering an emergency call, but the minute he heard the description, he made the connection.”

“Are you saying that MacDonald could be as innocent as Randall Adams in The Thin Blue Line?

“I think so much of the evidence has been lost,” Morris said wistfully. Lost too, perhaps, is any hope of certainty.

This is one of Morris’ greatest strengths, what Keats called “negative capability”: the ability to hold conflicting perspectives in the mind without “irritable” reaching after certainty. (So many conspiracy theorists just can’t bear the irritation of living with uncertainty.)

Any entanglement with the Jeffrey MacDonald case is risky, if you ask me, but Morris is not afraid of risk. As if to prove it, Morris tells me he’s considering plunging into the most dangerous labyrinth of them all—the Kennedy assassination. Abandon all hope ye who enter there.

Last November 22, the New York Times posted a six-minute mini-documentary Morris carved out of a six-hour interview with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, the author of Six Seconds in Dallas.

Another remarkable coincidence: Thompson was my philosophy professor at Yale, a specialist in the works of Soren Kierkegaard, the gloomy Danish proto-existentialist best known for the “leap of faith” notion—the idea that to believe in God one must abandon the scaffolding of reason for the realm of the irrational, even the absurd. The Lonely Labyrinth, Thompson’s book on Kierke­gaard, is still widely admired.

At the same time he was leading students through the labyrinth of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Thompson worked as a consultant for Life magazine on the JFK case and wrote his influential book on the ballistics evidence in Kennedy’s assassination—an attempt to prove through pure reason (and science) that the Warren Commission was wrong. That Oswald could not have fired the number of shots attributed to him in six seconds from his antiquated Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. Which meant there had to have been at least one more gun­man. (Others have since claimed to have disproved Thomp­son’s contention.)

More coincidences: Thompson eventually quit his promising academic career to become—yes—a private detective working with David Fechheimer, a legendary investigator who had also employed...Errol Morris.

After reading a story I’d written that discussed Thompson’s arguments, Morris called him and arranged an interview. “He drove from Northern California to Florida, where I filmed him,” recalls Morris. “I wondered why [he drove] because we offered to fly him in. So I’m interviewing him. He gets up. He walks off. He comes back. And he has a Mannlicher-Carcano, just like the one Oswald used.”

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