The Mystery of D.B. Cooper

Director: John Dower
Screenplay: John Dower
Features: William Rataczak, Tina Mucklow Larson, Ron Forman, Pat Forman, Ben Anjewierden, Jo Weber, Nick O’Hara, Bruce Smith, Marla Cooper
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2020
Country: U.S.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper

There are multitudes of unsolved mysteries in the annals of modern crime, but you would be hard-pressed to come up with one more bizarre and intriguing than the one at the center of John Dower’s new documentary The Mystery of D.B. Cooper. For those not familiar, D.B. Cooper was the name used by a still unidentified man who, in 1971, hijacked a Northwest Airlines 727 out of Seattle on Thanksgiving eve, demanded a ransom of $200,000, and then parachuted out the back of the plane somewhere over rural Washington with the cash strapped to his body. We don’t know whether he survived the jump (the weather was particularly bad and he would have landed in the middle of rough, heavily forested terrain), which makes the mystery all that more intriguing—not only do we not know who did it, but we don’t know if he got away with it.

Dower’s documentary dutifully retells the story of Cooper’s crime via Erroll Morris-esque cinematic recreations, contemporaneous news reports and footage, and new interviews with co-pilot William Rataczak and flight attendant Tina Mucklow, to whom Cooper handed a note informing her that he had a bomb and who spent most of the ordeal sitting with him at the back of the plane and lighting his cigarettes. We also hear from several former FBI investigators, although you may find yourself marveling more about the blatantly sexist attitudes that dominated the airline industry in the early ’70s and the fact that you could go into an airport, buy a ticket for cash, and not have to show any identification or have your bag checked before boarding the plane. “Security? What security?” chuckles one of the FBI invterviewees.

However, the real focus of Dower’s documentary is not the crime itself—the basic facts are well known and established—but rather, as the title suggests, the mystery of who did it. Over the years there have been numerous suspects, and The Mystery of D.B. Cooper homes in on five of them, all of whom are plausibly the man who pulled off what remains, to this day, the only unsolved case of air piracy in the history of commercial aviation. Dower focuses much of the film on interviews with various people who are convinced—absolutely convinced—that someone they know or knew (all of these suspects have since died) were, in fact, D.B. Cooper, and part of the film’s pleasure and frustration is in sorting out how any one of them could be right—or they could all be wrong.

We hear from Marla Cooper, who is sure that her beloved uncle, who showed up the morning after the hijacking covered in blood, was the culprit. But, then again, Ron and Pat Forman make a good case for why they think their friend, an oddball aviation enthusiast named Barbara Dayton, who also happened to be the first person in the state of Washington to have a sex-change operation, was Cooper. Military veteran Ben Anjewierden feels certain that Cooper was a man with whom he served named Richard Floyd McCoy Jr., who was arrested and convicted of a copycat hijacking in 1972. Arguably the most entertaining is Jo Weber, a brash Florida retiree who is convinced that her late husband, a charismatic salesman with a lot of secrets and false identities, was Cooper and that he came within inches of confessing to her on his deathbed.

With its slick editing, polished re-enactments, and sharp pacing, The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is highly entertaining in the way it interweaves all of the possibilities, tantalizing us with the all-too-convincing clues that pinpoint the various suspects as Cooper. Of course, any one of them could have done it, or maybe it was none of them. Maybe the man who called himself Cooper died after he jumped and his body decayed and disappeared in the deep woods, or maybe he survived and lived a long life with a huge secret that he kept from everyone around him. Like Citizen Kane (1941), The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is ultimately about how some things are simply unknowable and some mysteries will never be solved. While watching the film we may have very well seen the answer, but we will probably never know for sure.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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