True crime has been “flavour of the month” for a while now (at least since the Serial podcast burst into public consciousness). And nothing fuels the imagination like an unsolved mystery. Director John Dower (My Scientology Movie) skillfully combines the two in The Mystery of D. B. Cooper, producing arguably the best documentary of 2020.
In case you haven’t heard the story, D. B. Cooper was the name used by a man to buy an airline ticket in 1971. He boarded what was meant to be a short flight from Portland to Seattle. He handed a note to a flight attendant named Tina Mucklow announcing he was hijacking the aircraft. He showed Tina a briefcase containing what looked like a bomb. After the plane landed in Seattle, the authorities paid a ransom of $200,000 and provided four parachutes. Cooper, in return, released all the passengers but not the crew. The aircraft was refuelled and the hijacker plotted a course to Reno, and then possibly to Mexico. But over the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, he put on a parachute, opened the rear door of the Boeing 727 and jumped out. No trace of him has ever been found since.
While Dower has titled the film The Mystery of D. B. Cooper, in fact several different mysteries are in play. What happened to the hijacker? Could he have survived the jump, even with a parachute? Did he somehow make it out of the inaccessible terrain? If so, what happened to the money? And, of course, who was D. B. Cooper?
Dower structures the film around four “suspects” – or more accurately, connections of suspects. A woman named Jo Weber believes her late husband Duane was D.B. Cooper, based on a deathbed confession and some suspicious behaviour by Duane. Pat and Ron Forman believe their friend Barbara Dayton was Cooper. Barbara was formerly Robert Dayton before gender reassignment. She was an accomplished pilot. The FBI were keen on Richard Floyd McCoy. The case is pretty compelling because he tried to pull off a similar hijack just a year later. But was he “Cooper”, trying to recoup money he lost in the 1971 heist, or just a copycat? And finally Marla Cooper claims her father L.D. Cooper may have been the perpetrator, based principally on childhood memories.
The film examines each of the claims with a critical eye. But as it develops, it becomes clear that The Mystery of D. B. Cooper isn’t really interested in “solving” the crime (which remains the only unsolved hijacking case in US history). Rather, Dower wants to delve into questions of memory, of celebrity and of legend. This lifts the documentary far beyond a simple “whodunnit”.
While some background knowledge of the story might be helpful, it’s not essential since Dower lays it out in the first 20 minutes or so. He intercuts his interviews with the various claimants with archival footage, analysis and reenactments. He takes us into homes for a look into their private lives. All this gives the doco an engaging, dynamic flow. It reminded me of Errol Morris’s best work.
The Mystery of D. B. Cooper delivers a heady mix of forensics, myth-making and human frailty. In what has been a strong year for documentaries, this is one of the finest.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Lost Leonardo – movie review
- Queenpins (Paramount +) – movie review
- Defend, Conserve, Protect – movie review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television