Film Review: The Mystery of D.B. Cooper Dir: John Dower

Dan Cooper (AKA D.B. Cooper) is a mystery. The airjacker (or air pirate) of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 in 1971, his identity—and thus his fate—remains unknown. He stepped onboard the plane just before 3pm on November the 24th and left the plane by parachute some five hours later, USD200000 in hand.

The airjacking of flight Flight 305 remains unsolved; indeed, it is the only unsolved US case of air piracy, and given it has been nearly fifty years since Cooper disappeared, the case will likely remain unsolved. As such, the new documentary The Mystery of D. B. Cooper (dir. John Dower) seeks not to resolve the mystery of who Dan Cooper was, but rather, provide an answer to why so many people claim they know who the infamous air jacker was.

The documentary covers the stories of the friends and families of four of the prominent suspects: Duane Weber (who gave a deathbed confession to being Cooper); Barbara Dayton (who claimed to be Cooper after a night of drinking); LD Cooper (whose niece claims to have overheard him and his brother discuss the airjacking); and Richard Floyd McCoy (a known airjacker who lied about his whereabouts the day of the crime).

Dower lets family, friends and researchers explain why they are adamant they know who Cooper was. As all the suspects are dead (and thus cannot speak for themselves) whoever Cooper was before or after the events of November the 24th, 1971 is left entirely to the stories of the people who met him (or her…) well after the fact.

By combining interviews and a reenactment of the day Dower presents Cooper as the ultimate enigma, a person who came in and out of existence solely onboard Flight 305. Which means the question of the identity of Dan Cooper was rests upon the stories people have told.

So, what to make of the four stories the documentary covers? Dower—who largely features as voice off-camera—lets the problems in these tales come up naturally. On the surface the evidence of the day fits several of these candidates. The problem is that the more you dive into the particulars of that evidence, the role of chance, circumstance, and interpretation seemingly increases. A chance photo of Weber becomes evidence that he was reenacting jumping out of a plane; what seems like a joke told at a party is taken to be a confession by Dayton; known criminal McCoy acts suspiciously about his whereabouts on the day of the airjacking; and the disappearance of LD Cooper is asserted by his niece to be evidence he went to ground after committing the crime.

It is hard not to watch “The Mystery of D. B. Cooper” without reflecting on the surety some people feel in this current moment that they know the COVID-19 pandemic has been manufactured, or the US presidential election was rigged in order to steal Donald J. Trump’s second term. Dower is interested in how people engage in post facto reasoning: how our interpretation of events after the fact can sometimes twist information into “evidence” which serves a pre-ordained conclusion. There may be no conspiracy to hide the existence of who Dan Cooper was, but—at the same time—we can see in the story of the infamous airjacker the way in which people here-and-now twist sometimes perfectly ordinary events or coincidences into nuggets of “evidence” which “proves” that their theory about some conspiracy must be true.

In the end, people invested in the mystery of who Dan Cooper was may well come away feeling cheated by “The Mystery of D. B. Cooper”. Dower doesn’t just refuse to endorse any one candidate but, rather, raises doubt that any of them might be the airjacker in question. But the mystery of Dan Cooper—at least to Dower—isn’t who he was, but why people think they knew him. “The Mystery of D. B. Cooper” ends up as an intriguing exploration as to why four different groups of people are adamant they have solved the mystery when—at most—only one of them could ever be right. It may not speak directly to our current predicament, but it certainly reminds us that people will sometimes make their own “truth.”