By Stuart Heritage; Wednesday, July 13, 2022; The Guardian
DB Cooper is one of those figures who everyone thinks they know. A mysterious, suave, charming figure who, in 1971, hijacked a plane, demanded $200,000 and four parachutes, then took the money and leapt from the aircraft, never to be seen again. It is a myth that has been referenced in pop culture for more than 50 years, in shows from Breaking Bad to Loki to Mad Men.
But what do we know about Cooper other than the legend? What does anyone know about him? This is the thrust of DB Cooper: Where Are You?!, an entertaining new Netflix documentary series. And it is a testament to the legend that you’re going to leave the show feeling much more enlightened than you were at the start.
Where Are You?! comes out of the gates like the clappers. The opening chapter is devoted to retelling the story of Cooper, which retains all the punch it did back in the 1970s. Often a show like this will bust a gut to be about the relevance of an old crime, by drafting in ropey sociopolitical contexts or spurious parallels to contemporary events. But there is really no need here, because the DB Cooper story is eternally irresistible. A master criminal gets on plane, nabs a load of government money and then parachutes off without hurting a soul. It’s the sort of thing that makes you a folk hero. It is also the sort of thing that can make a person obsessed.
And this is important. To make a four-part documentary about DB Cooper, you ultimately have two options. You can either come armed with incontrovertible evidence that you have – without a shadow of a doubt – located his true identity, thereby putting to bed a mystery that has baffled amateur and professional detectives alike for half a century.
Or you can take the easier option and make a show about how wild DB Cooper drives people. For better or worse – and it is genuinely a toss-up – DB Cooper: Where Are You?! sadly goes for the latter. As the documentary wears along, we are introduced to all manner of potential Coopers. Disgruntled Vietnam veterans. Airline staff. A transgender person by the name of Barb. All, in one way or another, are seized upon and vetted.
But gradually, one name keeps returning to the surface: Robert W. Rackstraw. This 4-time felon looked the part, matching the official (frustratingly vague) police portrait. He had all the key skills. He seemed to delight in dancing on the gossamer thread between confirming his identity and denying it. All signs suggest he is the one and only Cooper – but he died in 2019 a free man.
This is what gives the series all its heft. Aside from a few cursory interviews with team members, former crime partners and relatives, we end up knowing almost as little about Rackstraw as we do Cooper. But that’s the point, because Rackstraw isn’t really the subject of Where Are You?! Instead, the focus is the thrumming DB Cooper industry.
The tale’s main character ends up being Thomas J. Colbert, a former CBS news researcher, Paramount story editor and police trainer who took a decade journey with a professional cold case team to prove Rackstraw is the guy. After getting no returned calls or emails for six months, he approaches Rackstraw in San Diego – wearing a pair of Google glasses to try to force a confession. His sleuths, led by former FBI, later chase down every new lead and hunch.
But as the focus shifts to Colbert, the series suddenly becomes the Netflix true-crime equivalent of Zodiac – another mystery his team ironically is pursuing.
This new line of storytelling reaches a climax in the third episode, where we’re thrown fully into what obsessives term “The Cooper Vortex,” a dark morass of conspiracy theories from amateur “Cooperites” with no evidence or credentials. Did the outlaw have anything to do with the French Canadian comics industry? Why did he have one molecule of titanium on his tie? Was the discovered Cooper cash found along the Columbia River planted?
Fortunately, a long stretch of the documentary is given over to coded military numerology. As we watch a 3-tour Vietnam NSA codebreaker, Rick Sherwood, scribble out strings of numbers, they strongly appear to prove, beyond all doubt, that Rackstraw is the skyjacker. The methodical work is fascinating to watch.
If you’re expecting to sit down in front of DB Cooper: Where Are You?! and learn new blockbuster evidence that will end the mystery for good, the actual revelations in the series are bound to frustrate you. But if you’re content to view it as a light study of human nature, of our desperate need to make sense of things that linger beyond our grasp – it is a brilliant, messy watch.
FYI from team organizer TJC: Of the 106 pieces of strong Rackstraw evidence provided to the producers of this Netflix program, only 3 items — his decrypted letters to his getaway partners, his escape route, and the parachute recovery — were featured in this superficial show. The “thrumming DB Cooper industry” was the focus. The team’s award-winning book on the subject, The Last Master Outlaw, however, provides all the facts that were cut from the program. If you’d like to see the raw research, simply click on the airliner on the home page.