- Movie Rating -

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper (2020)

| December 26, 2020

The story of the legendary D.B. Cooper has taken on a mythical status.  After nearly 50 years, it seems to be that great unattainable true crime narrative that is as illusive as it is fascinating.  It is a crime that seems impossible, but never-the-less was never solved.  Who was D.B. Cooper, and whatever became of him?

I was born just 11 days before Dan “D.B.” Cooper’s infamous 1971 Thanksgiving caper and so, I guess subconsciously, I grew up interested in the story, but who wouldn’t be?  Here is the story of a man who pulled off an impossible stunt, who hijacked a commercial airliner, threatened the passengers and crew with a bomb, demanded $200,000 in cash, jumped out the back of the plane mid-flight and then vanished into thin air.  We are fascinated by the idea of that story even if don’t believe a word of it.

The HBO documentary The Mystery of D.B. Cooper in choked full of people who not only claim to know what happened but believe that they can provide the final notation on this great unsolved mystery.  This isn’t simply a recounting of the events, but instead director John Dower tries to encapsulate the most definitive exploration of this crime that has ever been presented on film.  Okay, yeah, he does that, but he has also made a film that is as interested as it is misleading.

While the movie does deal with the crime, and even goes so far as to interview the stewardess and one of the pilots who were there that night, the movie spends a great deal of time cycling through a series of four living witnesses who seem to have some spurious answers to exactly who D.B. Cooper was. 

They don’t, actually.  The movie doesn’t really have a definitive answer as to the identity of D.B. Cooper, nor does it really claim to have the answer.  Like Oliver Stone’s JFK, Dower wants to roll out several differing and contradictory stories that may be true or false and kind of let you sort through the pieces so that you can decide for yourself.  What comes of this approach is a movie that seems increasing less interested in the crime than in focusing on a quartet of excitable yah-hoos who claim they have an answer.

The first claim is provided by Jo Weber, the widow of Duane Webber whom she did not know until after his death was actually a con man – she unearthed small handful of fake IDs that he had hidden away which sent her down a rabbit hole of memories that helped her put the puzzle together.  Plus, she claims that on his deathbed, Duane used his last breath to confess that he was none other than Dan Cooper himself.  After his funeral, she began to unspool a great amount of information about her husband’s secret life.  In the wake of her discovery, she became a curiosity on the talk show circuit, although she didn’t seem to be any closer to the answer than anyone else.

The second claim is told through a couple of side-witnesses and focuses on the crazy theory about Barbara Dayton whom several theorists suspected was really Dan Cooper in drag and who later received the first sex-change operation in the state of Washington.  Her confession was revealed in a story about how she opened up to friends one night on an airfield after having a few drinks at the local bar.

The third claim comes from Marla Cooper, who suspects that her Uncle LD was really the infamous D.B. Cooper who may have been trying to redo the crime to reclaim the loot that he lost the first time based on the information about Robert Dayton, who was caught after attempting to pull off a similar hijacking. Was he really D.B. Cooper trying to get it right?

The last claim comes from Bruce Smith, a man who uses his remote living conditions as a headquarters in which he tries to be the definitive chronicler of Cooper’s case.  His initial presentation seems convincing until you realize that his claims are more colorful theory than they are based on any hard evidence. 

I’ll be honest, by the time the film got to Smith, I was laughing to myself.  The movie gets more and more ridiculous the further along it goes.  What starts out as an interesting look into a great unsolved crime turns out to be hapless exercise in spurious claims that are no more or less relevant than that documentary about the hidden meaning of The Shining that came out a few years ago.  That’s really all the D.B. Cooper stories are anymore, just claims and theories.  It is probably unlikely that after nearly half a century that we will know the true identity of this man, but it is fun to speculate.  It’s a story that goes round and round and really ends up back in the same place.  It’s a mystery, and a damned good one.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized