John Dower’s latest HBO documentary traces the man behind the only unsolved instance of air-jacking in the history of the USA
Ever imagined a crime so perfect, that not only does it bamboozle some of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world, but also leaves an indelible mark on American pop culture down the ages? Well, look no further.
On November 24th, 1971, an individual by the name of D.B. Cooper took an entire plane filled with passengers hostage for a hefty ransom and then disappeared, never to be heard from again. Since then, he has achieved cult status, capturing the imagination of the American public and true crime fans, the world over. It remains the only instance of air jacking (hijacking of an aircraft) to have remained unsolved in the history of the USA.
John Dower’s latest HBO documentary aptly titled The Mystery of D.B. Cooper explores the enigma of Cooper by chronicling the seemingly simple yet peculiar chain of events leading upto the air jacking and the investigations thereafter.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper
- Director: John Dower
- Storyline: A documentary that looks at the well-known case, which is largely regarded as the greatest unsolved heist in American history
- Runtime:1 hour 25 minutes
In the quest to reveal Cooper’s true identity, the film uses the personal testimonies from erstwhile passengers and crew members of the ill-fated Northwestern Airlines flight and combines them with interviews of individuals who claim that they knew the real Cooper.
In doing so, the documentary zeroes in on four main suspects. However, viewers are left confused when associates and family members of these suspects vehemently insist on camera, that ‘theirs’ is the real D.B.Cooper, intensifying the air of mystery surrounding the case.
Reliving the crime
Dower chooses to reenact Cooper’s exploits by using competent actors and paying meticulous attention to the mise-en-scene. This transports us back in time, on a one-way ticket aboard the hijacked aircraft. Voice-overs from people who lived through the experience run parallel, providing with adequate narrative assistance in the retelling of the episode.
Here is what happened in a nutshell:
On Thanksgiving Day eve, 1971, Cooper boarded a plane in Portland bound for Seattle. Mid-flight, he handed a note to flight attendant Tina Mucklow which made clear his intentions — he had a bomb in a suitcase which he would detonate if his demands were not met.
In Seattle, after his demands were fulfilled, he let go of the passengers, but retained the crew. He told the pilots to fly him to New Mexico and then decided to jump off the aircraft from 10,000 ft. into the darkness of the night, onto a heavily forested area whilst it was pouring down heavily. He had around $200,000 in cash and four parachutes with him.
That was the last time anyone saw him.
The extensive manhunt which ensued yielded unflattering results. Many years later, some of his money was found buried under a sandy beach, miles from where he had jumped off.
The hidden motif
However, underneath the thin veneer of an investigative effort to track down the real D.B. Cooper, the documentary essentially tries to touch on the underlying themes, which shaped public reaction to the air jacking.
It coincided with a time in American history when more and more people were losing jobs to sophisticated machines. Big businesses were just starting to take over smaller establishments, which in the early 1970s, served as the backbone for the local economies in the U.S.
This affected how people reacted to Cooper’s crime. Many hailed him as a hero who took on the system and won. Archival footage from the time, pieced together by Dower establishes the same. “I think he is one of the slickest cats to walk the face of the earth,” a man told a reporter in the aftermath of the incident. “Do you think he is some sort of a hero?” the reporter questioned him. “Oh sure,” the man replied.
Yet another person said: “ I just think that the fellows got so much nerve… and he is successful this far that everybody’s kinda rooting for him a bit”.
Clearly, despite Cooper’s actions being unacceptable from a legal standpoint, it united people who felt they had been wronged by the powers that be. And in Cooper’s miraculous escape, they vicariously enjoyed the thrill of rebelling against the authorities.
Ultimately, The Mystery of D.B. Cooper raises more questions than it can answer. Not only does it leave it upto its viewers to make up their mind, but also serve as a reflection of American culture’s fascination with the underdog, rooting for the metaphorical David in its fight against Goliath.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is streaming on HBO