The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
It's that time of year again, when thoughts turn to turkey, Black Friday deals, and D.B. Cooper. Cooper hijacked Northwest Orient Flight 305 on Thanksgiving Eve 1971, then parachuted from the aircraft's aft stairs into history as the perpetrator of the only United States skyjacking that remains unsolved. It's the case's status that makes D.B. Cooper the catalyst for so many crackpot theories about who he really was (he actually gave his name as "Dan," but either way it's an alias), where he landed, whether he survived the jump, and if so, where he went and how he lived after. It's also why just about every television show with either "history" or "mystery" in its title has taken a run at trying to crack the D.B. Cooper case at least once, and why the story somehow finds a way to pop up in scripted shows (like Mad Men and Prison Break) that ostensibly have nothing to do with it.
The thinking seems to be that puzzle with a mystery man at its center is a programming slam dunk, but that's not always (or even usually) the case. I have my own theories why so many Cooper-adjacent projects fall short, but HBO's The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is an exception. Director John Dower (My Scientology Movie, I Don't Like Mondays) hasn't made a perfect documentary about the James-Bond-meets-Robin-Hood figure who's preoccupied conspiracists for so long, but Mystery is better than most.. Why does Dower's doc work where others don't? A few reasons:
Mystery has excellent access to case figures and experts. Often, a D.B. Cooper episode is larded with self-appointed "experts" (read: "obsessives"), FBI agents who have never even read the case file, and "analysts" it's tough to take seriously ("forensic parachute-fabricologist" is... not a thing, guys). Mystery has agents who worked the case; flight attendant Tina Nucklow; Skyjack author Geoffrey Gray; and as many people close to the film's chosen suspects that Dower could get on camera. It's authoritative, but…
It doesn't take itself too seriously. Nobody expects a true-crime property to be a laugh riot, but with a case this notorious, and this unlikely to be cracked almost five decades later — in which people were frightened but nobody got killed (save for possibly D.B. Cooper himself). It's okay to bring some wit to the proceedings. It's okay to cut together interviewees correcting Dower that they don't think an unlikely person is D.B. Cooper; they know he (or, in one case, she) is. It's okay to score a re-enactment of the local FBI contingent rushing to the airport with a funky Starsky & Hutch-type piece.
It doesn't try to do too much. Mystery focuses on a handful of suspects, and follows the theories about them as far as it reasonably can, which is a smart choice. The problem with many D.B. Cooper episodes and documentaries is that, because so little about D.B. Cooper is actually known, it's really hard to rule anyone out — and productions about the case often end up entertaining laughable speculation that just isn't interesting TV.
The dearth of clues or definitive leads also leads a lot of Cooper properties down research rabbit holes, obsessively investigating the fragmentary information we do have in a superficially "scientific" or "complete" way that tells us very little, and whose journey to that unsatisfying point is boring. The recent premiere of History's Greatest Mysteries spent a goodly portion of its over-two-hour (!) runtime on a series of grid searches, which yielded nothing — but even that "nothing" isn't probative, because the searches only covered a fraction of the relevant terrain. Mystery doesn't make that mistake. Dower seems to grasp that there can't really be any "definitive" answers in the Cooper case, absent a happenstance DNA match at some future time; he also seems to grasp that what still makes this unsolved mystery compelling is that elusiveness, those blank spots. The bigger picture is easier to fill in.
The Mystery Of D.B. Cooper isn't essential viewing if you've read Gray's book, or seen any other History Channel specials on it — but it's enough of an improvement over other productions that it's worth checking out. It's also a solid choice for viewers who don't know much about the case, because it knows the real heart of the interest in one of history's most famous hijackings isn't what actually happened. It's what could have happened. Gray notes after leafing through the FBI's file that the gazillion bizarre and useless tips on the case served as "a depository of paranoia" about America in the 1970s, a place for everyone's fear and alienation to go. But interest in D.B. Cooper tells us something else, too. Taking hostages without hurting anybody; scoring a quarter of a million dollars' ransom money and disappearing; living forever even if you died alone in a treetop in the Washington state interior — D.B. Cooper is a criminal, but an aspirational one, somehow. As Gray notes towards the end, "It's not about him, anyway… it's about believing in something." My personal belief has long been that D.B. Cooper is more interesting to think and talk about than he is the subject of documentary exploration — but to its credit, The Mystery Of D.B. Cooper finds a way.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper airs on HBO November 25th at 9:00 PM ET.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.