The Mystery of D.B. Cooper: Mythologizing Our Villains

There really is something fascinating about true crime stories.

From Unsolved Mysteries to Tiger King, there is something truly engaging about listening to stories that seem too wild to be true. However, in the history of mysteries, one man stands out as the biggest question mark of all. Known for his daring robbery from 10 000 feet, D.B. Cooper remains the only unsolved airplane hijacking in FBI history. 

Now, almost 50 years later, Emmy-nominated filmmaker John Dower (Thrilla in Manilla, My Scientology Movie) revives the epic enigma in his latest documentary, The Mystery of D.B. Cooper. Focusing on four primary suspects, Dower gives voice to family and friends who believe passionately that their friend or relative is the same man who hijacked a 727 flying out of Portland, OR, stole $200, 000 and four parachutes, daringly jumped out of the plan and disappeared forever.

Wisely, Dower steps back and allows the stories of his witnesses to take centre stage. With each parallel revelation and conflicting confession, the mystery grows as each testimony claims to know the truth behind the FBI?s most famous wanted man. Rather than attempt to conjure up some conclusion or lean towards any one particular voice, Dower allows each potential suspect the possibility that they are (or were) the infamous Cooper. Like the most captivating mystery stories, this one intentionally leaves more questions than answers as it leans into the many unknowns about this particular case. In D.B. Cooper, truth is relative and highly subjective to the point that it?s impossible to separate fact from fiction.

Though, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the documentary does not even stem from the testimonials themselves but from the fact that every one of them (and many others) want to be known as the escaped criminal. Like Robin Hood or Butch and Sundance, Dower points out that the legend of DB Cooper has been mythologized within our culture as some form of folk hero. Despite the fact that he  broke the law and terrified his victims, Cooper has become celebrated for his ability to get away with his crime. (Interestingly, Dower likens this alternate view to the fact that so many struggle financially and therefore view him as one who broke free from ?the Man?.)

In many ways, it also seems strange. After all, let?s not forget that people were actually in danger during the heist. Yet, at the same time, there seems to be something culturally cathartic about pulling off ?the big heist? which creates a sense of wonder around their wrongdoings. As the legend of these ?heroes? continues to grow, it?s fascinating to watch public opinion surrounding men like Cooper shift from angst to awe and villainy becomes heroism.

In the end, like the shadowy man himself, there?s something enthralling about The Mystery of DB Cooper. While the film offers no answers regarding his identity, those unanswered questions are entirely the point of the film. Though the crime may have taken place almost 50 years ago, John Dower prudently allows the conflicting voices that claim to know the whole story to take centre stage and, in doing so, gives even greater weight to the enigma that is D.B. Cooper.

The Mystery of DB Cooper is now playing on HBO Max. 

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