Certain crimes stick in our collective craw, often because they remain unsolved. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, the assassination of JFK, these unsolved cases have fascinated armchair detectives for decades, turning theories of whodunnit into endless arguments and virtual parlor games. The same is true with the case of D.B. Cooper. His hijacking of a 1971 Northwest Airlines plane remains one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Just who was this man who managed to escape with his ransom by jumping out of the plane in midair? Did he survive the jump? And was he ever seen or heard from again? Those questions are at the heart of the fascinating new documentary entitled THE MYSTERY OF D. B. COOPER premiering on HBO Max on November 25. If you’re a true-crime buff, or ready to be gobsmacked by one of the world’s craziest crimes, you will be captivated by this sly and detailed take on the case.
Cooper’s hijacking of that 727 passenger jet out of Portland, Oregon almost 50 years ago continues to take hold on the public for a number of significant reasons. It remains the only unsolved hijacking crime in America’s history. He held a crew and a plane full of hostages on the tarmac until he was paid $200,000 in small bills. Cooper escaped too once the flight was back in the air, brazenly leaping from it at 10,000 feet and likely landing in the dense Washington State woods below. A Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t pen a more fantastical tale.
This new documentary, directed by John Dower, is up to the task of telling it, however, with thorough detailing and cheeky wit to boot. He makes the particulars of the case clear as crystal for the novice, mostly through his well-done re-enactments showing what went down. (These scenes play out similarly to that old UNSOLVED MYSTERIES series on ABC in the 80s, albeit with better actors and production values.) But what makes Dower’s doc so fascinating are the interviews he’s included with those involved in the case. Dower not only interviews most of the still-living flight crew but a number of modern-day citizens claiming to have known Cooper and his ‘true identity.’
Dower concentrates on four suspects of being Cooper and the ‘witnesses’ who fervently believe so. The suspicious quartet is well-known to aficionados of the case: Richard Floyd McCoy, Lynn Cooper, Duane Weber, and most intriguingly of all, Barbara Dayton. Yes, Dayton is a female suspect, and Ron and Pat Forman, her friends from the 70s, are convinced she did the crime, albeit disguised as a man. Their testimony is the most intriguing of the doc, a story you must hear for yourself as it’s a truly bizarre one.
Then there is the moving testimony given by the crew that was threatened directly by Cooper’s demands, scenes with a distinct layer of pathos. After all, the crew was fearful that their hijacker might blow up the plane and everyone on board. Particularly moving are the words from flight attendant Tina Mucklow, the attractive stewardess Cooper interacted with the most. She found him cordial, even charming at times, but still threatening. Don’t be surprised if you tear up when she talks. Dower pushes all the folklore, yes, but he also makes sure to remind us that this isn’t OCEAN’S ELEVEN. Despite the whiff of a caper all around it, a briefcase with a bomb is still an act of terrorism, and that comes through in Mucklow’s memories.
The film remains mostly upbeat as it lays out the possible answers to the crime. Dower finds plenty of humor in all the witnesses and their quirky takes too. More than one who professes to know the truth is a hoot and a half. Dower enjoys their zaniness and even hangs on their faces a bit longer in instances, letting their hilarious stubbornness or misplaced confidence come through after they’re done pontificating.
One witness, Jo Weber believes she was married to Cooper. She insists he confessed as much on his death bed, but without other witnesses or recorded proof, it’s all just hearsay. Thus, Dower ends up resigned to the fact that the case will likely never be solved. After all, it’s been half a century now, and any chances of decent DNA samples proving Cooper’s true identity disappeared when that Northwest clean-up crew disposed of the cigarettes Cooper extinguished in his passenger seat’s armrest.
THE MYSTERY OF DB COOPER is a true-crime doc that fascinates, not only on the merits of the crime but by the extensive testimony of its witnesses, both real and imagined. There are many a who to the whodunnit and that makes Cooper’s criminality one of our nation’s longest-lasting puzzles. Dower asks more questions than can rightfully be answered, and because of that, his film is all the more fascinating and compelling to watch.