Everybody has at least a mild interest in true crime stories these days, but those tend to revolve around horrifying acts of violence or chilling mysteries about people who have disappeared and left heartbroken families behind. One kind of true crime story that doesn't get nearly enough attention, however, is unsolved plane hijackings. That's probably because there's really only ever been one, explored by director John Dower in his new documentary 'The Mystery of D.B. Cooper'.
In 1971, a man identified only as Dan Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 between Portland and Seattle with a bomb in a briefcase, extorted $US200,000, and parachuted into obscurity. To this day, the perpetrator remains in the wind. According to law enforcement, at least. Despite identifying himself as Dan Cooper, it was misreported as D.B. Cooper and the name stuck, becoming infamous. The story went on to inspire countless books, a 1981 Robert Duvall movie, a bad Seth Green comedy 'Without a Paddle', and a fan theory on 'Mad Men' about Don Draper being Cooper.
My favourite detail of the real event is how, when D.B. Cooper was ready to make his move, he handed the stewardess a note reading "I have a bomb," and she just tucked it into her pocket without reading it. Stewardesses, at that time, were constantly hit on, so she probably figured it was the umpteenth horny businessman she'd dealt with that week. But Cooper grabs her arm and says, "You should really read that note..."
I like it because, no matter who D.B. Cooper was, handing the note to the stewardess was the first step of his plan. When she walked away without reading it, you know he was thinking, "Bro, you have to be fucking kidding me! My plan's failing already?!"
The movie introduces us to several key people who were involved in the investigation, including an F.B.I. agent and several authors who wrote about this crime. Adding a lot of colour to the story are interviews with individuals who claim to have known someone who really was D.B. Cooper, offering insights as to a possible motive and anecdotes that greatly impacted them in believing that someone they knew was, in fact, a quasi-mythological criminal figure. Is it Duane Weber, Barbara (formerly Robert) Dayton, L.D. Cooper, Richard Floyd McCoy, none of the above, or someone else entirely? Dower does a good job of asking the right questions and even going so far to recreate the events that unfolded that fateful day.
Nearly fifty years have passed and his identity is still unknown, no body has never been found, and only a small sum of money was discovered eight years after the hijacking (a chunk that a kid found in a riverbank years later). The documentary acknowledges that it is very unlikely D.B. Cooper survived to spend that money. Even if he got his parachute to open and was somehow able to land despite it being overcast when he jumped, he'd be stuck in the mountains in the middle nowhere, in the dead of winter, wearing a suit and street shoes. He probably died of exposure.
Hardworking, flannel-wearing, corned beef and hash-eating people elevated a shady character to hero status because he did something that skillfully defied the government. On the other hand, he could have just been a delusional guy who didn't know what he was doing and died on impact.
I enjoyed the ability of Dower to take viewers into this mystery, allowing us to ponder questions and form our own speculations and conclusions. Personally, I think the parachute jump was all a ruse. He just threw a little bit of the money and the parachutes out the back and then hid in the plane. He never left the plane. He's still living there now, nearly 50 years later.
Told in a playful manner, with room for genuine emotion as well, 'The Mystery of D.B. Cooper' becomes, by the end, a meditation on the human need for myths and legends. The United States in 1971 was a country at war with itself, and it was a time of tremendous upheaval. There was a recession happening along with a lot of counterculture stuff. The number of bomb threats and explosions in government buildings was at an all-time high. Inner cities were becoming ghettos. America was losing the Vietnam War, and soldiers were coming home addicted to heroin. The overwhelming idea was that there was no control. The country was unhinged and there was a state of national paranoia.
Because his crime didn't harm anyone, at a time when Boeing had laid off 60,000 workers in Seattle, D.B. Cooper became an instant folk hero. He was a living representation of the "sticking it to the man" ethos of the era, a Robin Hood-like figure, bucking the system. It was a way to rid themselves of their own feelings of helplessness.
When you consider what has been going on in the United States in the last few years - the debt ceiling, the recession, high unemployment, failed wars, the increased reliance on technology, conspiracy theories, riots, the elevation of Donald Trump - there are some strains of similarity. Hardworking, flannel-wearing, corned beef and hash-eating people elevated a shady character to hero status because he did something that skillfully defied the government. On the other hand, he could have just been a delusional guy who didn't know what he was doing and died on impact.
As 'The Mystery of D.B. Cooper' explains, any time you have a legend, you have a hero who serves a purpose. To this day, Cooper serves a purpose.