John Dower’s documentary doesn’t try to solve the mystery as much as it tries to show why people want it to be part of their personal narrative.
In November 1971, a man who identified himself as D.B. Cooper hijacked a flight leaving Portland, Oregon. He said he had a bomb and would only release the passengers in exchange for $200,000 and four parachutes. After he had received his ransom, he wanted to fly to Mexico, but as the plane made it way to Reno, Nevada for refueling, Cooper parachuted out over the Washington State wilderness. He was never heard from again, and the FBI never solved the case. John Dower’s documentary The Mystery of D.B. Cooper spends its first act going through the beats of the case, but it’s more concerned with four potential suspects and the impact they made on those who are certain that their guy is the real D.B. Cooper. Dower wisely knows that he’s not going to solve this case that even the FBI couldn’t crack, and instead broadens his perspective into what the Cooper case means to people and why this unsolved mystery has such enduring power.
The first act of D.B. Cooper goes through the basic beats of the case while introducing us to four prime suspects. There’s Duane Weber who gave a deathbed confession to his wife in Pensacola, Florida; transgender woman Barbara Dayton who told friends Pat and Ron Forman that she was the real D.B. Cooper; Marla Cooper in Seattle, Washingotn who’s certain that her uncle L.D. Cooper was the culprit; and then there’s Ben Anjewierden, who believes his roommate Richard Floyd McCoy committed the skyjacking. All four of these suspects are now deceased, so it’s up to the survivors to make the case as to whether or not the person they knew was the true Cooper.
If you’re not familiar with the D.B. Cooper case, Dower’s documentary makes for a good primer on the subject as he skillfully reenacts the crime with some good dramatizations as well as taking the time to talk to the flight crew that operated the plane that Cooper hijacked as well as the agents who investigated the crime. The facts of the case are largely undisputed, but what makes the story so compelling is that it was both audacious and remains unsolved. That leaves a massive hole where people can fill in their theories, and what Dower sees is that Cooper has moved from fugitive to folklore and his theft provides a bizarre kind of validation.
In this way, The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is oddly reminiscent of David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac, which also revolves around unsolved 1970s crimes. But whereas Fincher’s film rightly sees tragedy as a murderer evaded justice, The Mystery of D.B. Cooper feels more like a victimless crime turned into a parlor game where people try to make the case for why they know the real D.B. Cooper. There’s also the fifth option that Cooper didn’t survive the jump out of the plane, which can just as easily be argued. Rather than make the case for one argument over another, Dower keeps the focus on why people are bothering to debate it in the first place.
If there is a tragic element in The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, it’s not in the case itself, but in terms how people are remembered. Duane Weber’s widow feels more haunted by his deathbed confession than freed by the knowledge. Furthermore, the D.B. Cooper of it all has a tendency to subsume everything else about an individual’s identity. They are now the legend of a daring criminal rather than the complex person who may be more than just a mysterious heist. Ultimately, it becomes a story we tell ourselves to forge a connection to ones we’ve lost. The reality of D.B. Cooper vanishes into thin air.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper arrives on HBO and HBO Max on November 25th.
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