If there are any true crime fans who aren’t familiar with the DB Cooper case, don’t go into this film expecting many answers. That isn’t the fault of HBO’s Original Documentary The Mystery of DB Cooper, just that this is a case that will likely never get an answer which might be a tough pill to swallow. DB Cooper committed the only unsolved act of air piracy in American history. A mysterious man who hijacked a 727 flying out of Seattle, demanded $200,000 ransom and four parachutes, and then leaped from the plane above forested Washington and was never heard from again. This flight occurred on November 24th, 1971 almost fifty years ago… making HBO’s decision to premiere the documentary on the 25th a fun nod to the anniversary.
As insane as that sounds, the case only gets stranger. The documentary follows four major suspects in the case, each of whom’s family believes without a doubt that they were the mysterious DB Cooper: Duane Weber, Barbara Dayton, LD Cooper, and Richard Floyd McCoy. The documentary presents each suspect’s case in a non-linear fashion, interspersing interviews with family and friends in between telling the story of the case. The documentary adds to the retelling by interviewing the pilots, flight attendants, and passengers who survived the hijacking. Also interviewed are writers and FBI agents who have worked on the case throughout the years. Tonally, the film does a fantastic job. The reenactments and real footage displayed transport the viewer back to the ’70s.
Arguably, the most interesting part of the documentary is the part that is given the least attention. The film briefly touches on the culture of air travel before the case. For those who remember how significantly American air travel changed after 9/11, it is almost shocking to see someone respond when asked about airport security back in the day with: “what security?” Hijackings weren’t unheard of either, the film briefly mentions that previous skyjackings were often committed by Cuban Nationalists who wanted to be taken home. Some would even buy the passengers rum during the flight. Of course, the documentary is ultimately about DB Cooper but just a few more minutes discussing just how different this case was from others before it in America would have likely made a big impact.
The other part that feels underserved is the discussion behind the culture of Seattle when this occurred. It is briefly touched on, but due to the non-linear presentation of the case, it gets a bit lost. What is so important about DB Cooper’s case in comparison to other true crime cases is how it became more of a legend, and the criminal became a folk hero. DB Cooper gained a cult following for “sticking it to the man” in the aerospace industry. Why this is so important is only slightly explored: everyone has a theory about D.B. Cooper. It is difficult not to once you learn about his case.
I grew up in Western Washington, and my dad worked at Boeing my whole life. Seattle and Sea-Tac airport are famously associated with Boeing (less-so nowadays), but back then Boeing had just been hit by a massive wave of layoffs. The economy of the city was in extreme decline. Seeing everything centered around an area I am very familiar with was an interesting experience. I didn’t hear about DB Cooper until I was in my twenties from a Buzzfeed Unsolved episode. As soon as I did, I read more and created a theory because I knew the area. Then, I found out my dad was also fascinated by the case and had a theory of his own.
This documentary is a great way to learn information about the DB Cooper case but during its almost 90-minute run, it felt as though it was missing a heart. It presents the theories but doesn’t do much to interrogate anything. Aside from one man interviewed, the documentary doesn’t explore the very likely possibility that Cooper didn’t survive the fall. There also isn’t a lot of evidence for this case. The FBI mysteriously lost possible DNA evidence, and this is barely questioned by the interviewers. Most of the “evidence” presented is “he said, she said.”
A compelling element in the documentary is that there are four different suspects, but no one is “lying.” Each one of these family members firmly believes they are telling the truth. The film cleverly illustrates this by showing how the interviewer gets corrected by each person when he asks “do you think X was DB Cooper.” Everyone insists they know. The documentary is clearly trying to show how it is human nature to want to solve mysteries, and how we can sometimes convince ourselves of things that aren’t there if it fits what we are looking for; how humans create myths. Unfortunately, this is presented rather late in the film.
The largest issue with The Mystery of DB Cooper lies in its presentation of suspect Barbara Dayton. Dayton was a trans woman and is frequently misgendered by her family in the interviews. At first, the film appears to present Dayton’s transition as if it was a means to cover up her identity if she was DB Cooper. However, later on, family members reveal that Dayton was questioning and exploring her gender identity throughout her life, which would debunk this. Dayton was a pilot, and friends of hers testify that she was very defensive of DB Cooper. The problem is that the documentary focuses less on this and more on her gender identity. This was uncomfortable and felt as though it was sensationalizing Dayton’s transgender identity when, in fact, it didn’t matter much in relation to her case. There were other parts of her story that could have been focused on more.
As far as true crime documentaries go, The Mystery of DB Cooper is a decently put together, middle of the road film. It is good for newcomers to the case but doesn’t do much investigation for those already familiar. The non-linear storytelling keeps it intriguing, although hinders some of the themes presented at the end. It also prevents exploration of certain cultural elements around the case. Ultimately, the largest red flag is the framing of suspect Barbara Dayton, which felt sensational and may be triggering to some.
The Mystery of DB Cooper premieres Wednesday, November 25th at 6 PM PT on HBO and HBO Max.
The Mystery of DB Cooper
- Rating - 7/107/10
As far as true crime documentaries go, The Mystery of DB Cooper is a decently put together, middle of the road film. It is good for newcomers to the case but doesn’t do much investigation for those already familiar. The non-linear storytelling keeps it intriguing, although hinders some of the themes presented at the end… the largest red flag is the framing of suspect Barbara Dayton, which felt sensational and may be triggering to some.