When Kenny Daglish made the transition from Celtic in Scotland to Liverpool in the English Premier League, John Dower’s Scottish father found his European football allegiance transitioning, too. Over the years, the Dower family avidly followed their team, attending the miracle win in Istanbul in 2005 and now enjoying the latest spoils of success under manager Jurgen Klopp, who has led them to Champions League and Premier League titles. But don’t confuse John Dower’s fandom with partiality as the unblinking eyes of a documentarian.
“I’d just love to tell the story of the man who I’m deeply in love with, Jurgen Klopp, who has done extraordinary things in a short amount of time,” he shared via ZOOM from England. “But directors are coldhearted assassins, and I put aside my love when it comes to filming. It would be great to hang out with the guys, but I’m not signing on for a film where the director doesn’t have the final cut. Besides, the best sports dramas are the ones where you don’t really see the sports. The film can’t replicate the drama of the game.”
Dower has done sports stories before, like his documentary Thrilla in Manila, but his latest looks into the legend surrounding D.B. Cooper. While other films had been made trying to investigate what really happened on November 24, 1971, Dower’s look at the hijacker who jumped out of a Boeing 727 with two hundred thousand dollars in ransom money investigates those who believe they know what really happened – because they know the real Cooper.
“We’re not trying to solve it,” explains Dower. “The FBI have tried unsuccessfully for fifty years so how is a guy from South London? If you’re at a pub telling the story, ‘It’s stormy night, it’s Thanksgiving Eve, a guy in a suit and sunglasses gets on a plane.’ It’s not dramatic enough because it’s one of the most passive hijackings ever!”
“He’s so polite, he might as well have been English.”
Dower knows that it would have been easy to mock or satirize the different individuals he interviewed for the film, each who is sure they knew the real D.B. Cooper. Of course they can’t all be right, but their passion for what they believe is captured, fairly, on camera by a documentarian who is more than willing to tell their stories.
“I respect their belief in their stories,” says the director. “Now, I’m not equating myself to him, but when [Steven] Spielberg was making Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he said, ‘I don’t necessarily believe in UFOS but I believe in the people who believe in them. They’re not just the village crazies.’ They’re pouring their lives into why they believe this. As we got deeper, other suspects popped up, like a guy in Long Island who wanted several thousand dollars to tell us it was the guy from Catch Me If You Can. Once you ask for money, you’re instantly dismissed because you’re in it for something else.”
Nancy Abraham told Dower that as people walk up and down passing other people on the street, cheek to jowl, that each has story after story inside of them. It’s those stories that Dower has sought in pursuit of the Mystery of D.B. Cooper, but he’s clear that it’s still a mystery, and it’s not up to him to solve it.
“You’re kind of relieved they lost the cigarette butts,” Dower admits, referring to the lack of DNA evidence. “With the Internet, there’s not a lot of mystery left in the world. That’s the beauty, the purity of Cooper’s uncertain story. You can be part of completing the story.”
Dower believes that any belief system, any perceived story of an individual, has an element of craziness because it’s their story and not rooted in things that the rest of us would call realistic. But he says that the people he interviewed have “D.B. Cooper shaped holes” in their lives, and that as he listened to them, they convinced him. “Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good story,” he admits.
Jaws was the first story that caught his attention like that, at twelve or thirteen, in the theater with his father. It was the first time Dower realized that a movie was made with care and thought, and one scene captured his attention in a way that he can still recount it forty-five years later.
“It’s that moment when they open the town back up and they’re all on the beach. They’re apprehensive, and they do a crash zoom in on Roy Schneider’s face. But then everyone comes rushing out of the water, and one kid is bloody eaten! Then they go crashing into the mother’s face. She’s not the woman you’d expect, not a soccer mom, but someone you could clearly tell was a slightly older woman, a bit spinsterly. This boy was her world and there was no one else. That’s when I realized casting was important, and the storytelling was amazing.”
Dower was drawn into the world of documentaries by films like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, the story of the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of police officer Robert Wood, and Nick Brunfield’s Tracking Down Maggie, an access-free documentary that tried and failed to gain access to then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The action turned from watching documentaries to making them at the turn of the century, just as he came across Chris Smith’s American Movie, a documentary about the struggle of Mark Borchadt to get his horror film made.”I still watch it once a year, it’s so wonderful. They make a film about a guy in Wisconsin who is trying to make a horror film with his mate. It’s horrible and he just won’t give up. Documentaries are allowed to have moments that are funny, moments of levity.”
That’s why the strangeness of the various stories about D.B. Cooper’s potential next chapter appeal to him. They are a little off the wall, not as serious in sensibility to viewers, but no less true to the people who believe them. Still, don’t assume that this is a farce, because Dower knows there’s more at stake here, even if it’s hidden behind a wink and a grin. The film is asking questions about ideals that everyone takes for granted.
“It’s about belief, about memory, the stories we tell ourselves,” admits the director. “We all do it. Why are these people any different? I’d so love if one of them was the accurate story behind D.B. Cooper.”
It’s all still a mystery though – and that’s what makes it a story worth Dower telling. Even today, discussing money that washed ashore, mentioned briefly in the movie but not fully unpacked, reveals another mystery. “The fact that the money washed ashore, that element gives it another gear because the FBI showed the money couldn’t have been there that long. They did tests on the elastic bands, and there’s no way it could be there in that status. The money had only been there a year, not nine. Where did that money come from?”
“It’s almost as bonkers as him jumping out of the plane.”
Maybe that will be Dower’s next investigation, presenting the stories as he finds them. But like a good story, the audience is left to fill in the blanks and consider their own interpretations, based on their own beliefs, their own memories, and what they tell themselves.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper premieres on November 26 on HBO.