Producer: Anna Stephens Director: John Dower Screenplay: John Dower Cast: Jo Weber, Marla Cooper, Pat Forman, Ron Forman, Rena Ruddell, Tina Mucklow, William Rataczak, William Mitchell, Tim Collins, Bruce Smith, Geoffrey Gray, Jerry Thomas, Frank Montoya Jr., Bob Fuhriman, Owen Birkett, Edmund Hodson, John Jesper, Tamsyn Kelly, Jefferson King, Edwina Mitrica, Amy Pryke, Emma Samms, Miles Richardson, Hannah Pauley, Peter Caulfield, Anne Wittman and David Mills Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Among the “unsolved mysteries” that are such matters of fascination to the public—the old, long-running NBC series even bore that name, and has recently been revived, and the popularity of “true crime” podcasts testifies to the continued viability of the template—two are especially enduring (if, that is, you set aside conspiracy-based scenarios like “Who killed Kennedy?”). One is the identity of Jack the Ripper, the granddaddy of them all. The other is that of D.B. Cooper.
Marking the forty-ninth anniversary of the so-called Cooper’s hijacking of a Northwest Airlines 727 out of Seattle on Thanksgiving Eve, 1971, and his absconding with a $200,000 ransom by parachuting off the plane into the Oregon wilderness, never to be seen again, John Dower’s documentary, available on HBO and HBO Max, does a good job of relating the specifics of the case, using interviews (with crew members William Rataczak and Tina Mucklow and passenger William Mitchell), archival footage, recreations (with actors such as David Mils, who plays Cooper) as well as sessions with investigators like FBI agent Bob Fuhriman and Frank Montoya Jr., who announced the official closure of the case in 2016.
But this isn’t primarily a retelling of the hijacking story. Like Rodney Ascher’s 2013 film “Room 237,” which centered on curious theories about the messages hidden behind the surface of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” it’s a study of obsession, concentrating on people who are certain they know who Dan Cooper (or “D.B.,” as the media called him) really was. There are quite a few candidates who have been proposed over the years.
One is Duane Weber, a fellow of doubtful background who told his wife Jo on his deathbed that he was Cooper. That led her to sift through shards of memory to find bits and pieces that seemed to confirm the claim. Jo even has a sort of collaborator, Tim Collins, who has become convinced she’s right and helps arrange interviews and collect additional evidence, and he’s happy to share his certainty too.
Another is L.D. Cooper, whose champion is his niece Marla. She remembers hearing her uncle and his brother discussing some unusual plan before going off on a turkey hunt before Thanksgiving, and is certain it was the hijacking.
Then there’s Richard McCoy, Jr., who hijacked another airliner using Cooper’s playbook the following year, but was quickly captured.
Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, there is Barbara Dayton, a transgender woman who suggested to Pat and Ron Forman, whom she’d met accidentally at an airstrip, that she had dressed as a man to impersonate Cooper. They remain convinced she was telling the truth. Dayton’s relatives, including his daughter Rena, are also interviewed.
In addition to those with direct connections to suspects, Dower interviews a few outsiders who’ve given their time obsessively to the search for answers. One is Bruce Smith, who occupies what amounts to a shack in the Oregon woods, devoting himself to pointing out how the FBI bungled the investigation as well as looking for the truth, and enjoys explaining how Cooper became a kind of heroic figure, stumping the establishment at a time when economic problems left people sour at the status quo. Geoffrey Gray, on the other hand, is an author who’s written a book on the search for Cooper and assesses the various candidates. And then there’s Jerry Thomas, who’s walked the forest for more than thirty years, searching not for evidence of Cooper’s identity but of the fact that he died in his attempt—a parachute, for example.
Dower pushes no solution to the mystery of Cooper’s identity, presenting his story as one of those endlessly fascinating mysteries that defy resolution, which simply inspires so many to seek to unlock the riddle. The fact that the sketches of Cooper could match so many ordinary-looking men is further encouragement to them, but as Gray observes, a need to believe something is at the heart of the matter.
Nicely edited by Paul Carlin, with an attractive music score by Tim Atack and Lindsay Wright added for good measure, “The Mystery of D.B. Cooper” is an engaging addition to the “unsolved mysteries” genre that demonstrates how obsessive a desire to solve a tantalizing puzzle can become.