'The Mystery of D.B. Cooper': TV Review

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper
Courtesy of HBO
An interesting, if too brief, examination of the obsession with an ongoing mystery.
11/25/2020

HBO's documentary explores several suspects and theories surrounding the unsolved D.B. Cooper hijacking case.

As AMC's Mad Men approached the end of its acclaimed run, a fringe-but-persistent theory popped up that the show might conclude with the revelation that Jon Hamm's Don Draper was actually notorious plane hijacker D.B. Cooper.

It was a theory generated from circumstantial clues and had little to do with the actual storytelling of the series — see also the "Is Megan actually Sharon Tate?" quandary — but it pointed simultaneously to how certain viewers treat all entertainment as a puzzle to be solved and to the enduring mystery of D.B. Cooper.

This week marks the 49th anniversary of the fateful November when a passenger hijacked a 727 jet on a short flight between Portland and Seattle, set the plane down long enough to release the passengers and collect $200,000 (plus four parachutes) and returned to the air before jumping out over hilly forest terrain, never to be seen again.

John Dower (Thrilla in Manilla), director of HBO's The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, is not here to give a definitive answer in what remains the only unsolved plane hijacking in American history.

Yes, the documentary provides you with the basic background on the case, with the help of several key figures who generally pop up in Cooper-related projects — including flight attendant Tina Mucklow, co-pilot William J. Rataczak and passenger William Mitchell. With accompanying reenactments, those three tell roughly the same versions of the hijacking that they've probably told a million times over the past 49 years. It's perfunctory and probably takes up more time than necessary in a fairly brief — 87 minutes — documentary, but I suppose that with each passing year there are fewer and fewer people who arrive pre-obsessed with D.B. Cooper.

What Dower is interested in here isn't the hijacking itself or even how it has gone unresolved for decades, but rather the nature of the D.B. Cooper obsession.

Most of the documentary is dedicated to a quartet of suspects, all deceased, and the friends and loved ones who are absolutely certain that they figured out who D.B. Cooper was. These aren't deep-dive suspects or anything. They each have a listing on the darned D.B. Cooper Wikipedia page. Still, each loved one gets the opportunity to go through the evidence that forms the foundation of their surety.

There's Richard Floyd McCoy Jr., a decorated Vietnam veteran who definitely committed a copycat hijacking months after the Cooper incident and became more suspicious through multiple subsequent jail breaks. There's Duane Weber, whose widow, Jo, has spent years trying to make sense of a deathbed confession, as well as evidence of a double-life. There's L.D. Cooper, whose niece, Marla, has a vague memory of a Thanksgiving hunting trip and some strange family lore. And, finally and perhaps most intriguingly, there's Barbara Dayton, whose story includes service in World War II and a sex change operation.

There are reasons why each of those suspects hasn't become a consensus Cooper pick, but Dower's goal is getting to the root of each faction's belief rather than shaking that credulity. He lets them tell their stories. He peppers some of the recollections with reenactments. He even tags along with Jo Weber's "memory man" — a young Cooper obsessive who has apparently made it his life's "work" to be a son of sorts to Jo and to confirm the Duane Weber theory — on a trip to the banks of the Columbia River, where several wads of Cooper's ransom cash were discovered in 1980.

I don't even think Dower wants viewers to have a horse in this race. He doesn't debunk any of their stories, but there are certain factors he makes sure you never lose track of, like how the famous Cooper composite sketches generated by eyewitness accounts look like basically every slender, clean-shaven white guy of a certain age. Even Dower's representative experts, notably eccentric Bruce Smith and less eccentric Geoffrey Gray, keep their specific opinions to themselves, corroborating details here and there, but focusing more on a bigger context for why this is a conversation we keep having.

And if you don't want to buy any of this? Dower offers Jerry Thomas, who has walked the woods of Washington daily for 30 years and is certain that Cooper couldn't possibly have survived the plane evacuation, meaning that everybody is wrong.

Note the word "wrong" and not "lying." Smith expresses skepticism of one suspect and when Dower protests that she passed a polygraph, he replies quickly, "I think she believes it." At least as Dower presents it, nobody here is committing fraud or seeking attention. Maybe they want to validate family legends or explain certain gaps from their past, or maybe they're even being misled themselves. A lot of their certitude is hovered around and not analyzed.

I like the intellectual exercise of The Mystery of D.B. Cooper and how unavoidably unsatisfying Dower's approach is intended to be. This is actually becoming an HBO documentary thing; see also Murder on Middle Beach as a vastly more in-depth and personal excavation of an unsolved crime.

Nobody would suggest that The Mystery of D.B. Cooper needed to be four and a half hours long like Murder on Middle Beach, nor that it needed to become an autobiographical portrait of John Dower. But Dower is a constant off-camera voice and presence in the documentary and his own preoccupation with Cooper is never interrogated. That's just one of several places I wish The Mystery of D.B. Cooper had gone deeper, not on the facts or suspects, but on the psychology of all involved.

So don't expect The Mysteries of D.B. Cooper to answer whatever mysteries you might want solved in the case. Dower isn't a detective or a trained investigator. He's an interested party interviewing several more deeply interested parties. And if there's room for more inspired inquiry? Well, the 50th anniversary is coming up next year.

Premieres Wednesday, Nov. 25, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.