From the Archives: The Mystery of D.B. Cooper walks the line between fact and legend

From the Archives: The Mystery of D.B. Cooper walks the line between fact and legend

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

The only unsolved hijacking in American history is the one enacted by D.B. Cooper. In 1971, the mysterious man behind the moniker managed to take control of a 727 by way of passing a note to the stewardess indicating he had a bomb in his luggage. His demands were simple: land the plane, provide a large sum of money and some parachutes, then take off again so that Cooper could skydive his way to freedom. And that’s exactly what went down. The plane landed, Cooper was provided with everything he requested, and every passenger was permitted to leave before the plane took off again. Once airborne, Cooper lowered the stairs and leapt from the aircraft’s rear, never to be seen again.

A lot of speculation has been made about the identity and fate of Dan “D.B.” Cooper, and since the only trace of his existence is a handful of witnesses and a small portion of the stolen money which washed up near his jump location, speculation is the best that can be done. Cooper’s crime occurred long before DNA was a factor in law enforcement, and really, if we’re all being honest, short of inconveniencing a plane full of people, it’s a relatively victimless crime. In fact, a lot of folks view Cooper’s successful hijacking as “points on the board for the little guy,” and as I grow increasingly skeptical of large businesses and the soulless automatons that run them, I’m inclined to agree.

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is a detailed look into a handful of proposed suspects, told through the eyes of people who knew them. Be it friends, family, or law enforcement entities, everyone has a theory, and a few of them are pretty compelling. Intercut between the outlines of each suspect is a thorough retelling, complete with reenactments, of the crime itself. This results in a film basic enough to introduce those unfamiliar with the story to its details, but thorough enough to keep even the biggest true crime zealot (me) interested. I’d say about half of the proposed suspects have a pretty compelling case behind them, while a few of them are downright laughable. In either situation, even the most ridiculous claims end up being interesting if not as a study of the actual man behind the crime, but rather as a look into his legacy — what his bold, reckless act means to those within its historical wake. It also calls into question why so many people would outright claim to be an at-large hijacker, and just what they can hope to gain, no matter how intangibly, by doing so.

My favorite talking head featured in the doc is that of the stewardess who intercepted Cooper’s note, and who had more face time with the mysterious traveler than anyone else. Her story highlights what a hijacking was like back in the day (they were surprisingly common and non-violent), and gives us a step-by-step walkthrough of exactly what went down during Cooper’s infamous flight(s). She’s a valuable consultant for the story, but putting her tale at the center of things, connecting each proposed suspect to the plot beats of her description, accidentally weakens the film, albeit in a minor way. Sure, this flick is less about solving the crime than it is about exploring what the crime means culturally, but it seems weird that the filmmakers never saw fit to present photos of the proposed suspects to the single person who talked to Cooper face to face throughout the entire ordeal. I can only assume that either they did and she rejected every suspect, or they chose not to show her for fear of the same. Or perhaps she made a selection, softly confirming that one suspect is more likely than the others…nullifying the film’s need to exist in the first place.

Or maybe I’m missing the point? Because now I find myself wondering if things aren’t simply better this way. No answer could really be as satisfying as the mystery itself, and as a cultural item, a mystery will always be more pervasive and enduring. Unless they announce that D.B. Cooper went on to become Tom Selleck or is someone actually named P.P. Pooper, revealing his identity is the only surefire way to make him disappear forever. The Mystery of D.B. Cooper simultaneously deflates the myth while making it bigger than it ever was. How appropriate too, given that D.B. Cooper remains an enduring folk hero…who we all know was just some guy.

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper premieres tomorrow on HBO.

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