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 Rackstraw. Rackstraw looked the part, matching the official (frustratingly vague) police portrait. He had all the necessary skills. He seemed to delight in dancing on the gossamer thread between confirming his identity and denying it. All signs suggest that Rackstraw 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 relatives and acquaintances, 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 real focus is the thrumming DB Cooper industry.
The main character of the series ends up being Thomas J. Colbert, a former CBS news, Paramount TV exec, and police trainer who took a ten-year journey with a cold case team to prove that Rackstraw is the guy. After getting no returned calls or emails for six months, He approaches Rackstraw – wearing a pair of Google glasses to try to force a confession. He chases down every lead and hunch, convincing himself he’s got the man.
As the focus shifts to Colbert, the series becomes the Netflix true-crime equivalent of Zodiac – another case his team, ironically is pursuing (More on it at TheCaseBreakers.org).
This 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 that sucks people in thanks to the case’s total refusal to be solved. Did Cooper have anything to do with the French Canadian comics industry? Why did he have one molecule of titanium on his tie?
A bafflingly long stretch of the documentary is given over to coded military numerology, as we watch a Vietnam NSA codebreaker, Rick Sherwood, scribble out strings of numbers that appear to prove beyond all doubt that Rackstraw is DB Cooper. It is fascinating to watch, like staring into an unhealed wound.
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 contents of the series are bound to frustrate you. But if you’re content to view it as a 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: The team’s award-winning book on the subject, The Last Master Outlaw, however, has the highest number of 5-star Amazon reviews (157) on the jumper.. And that tome (with 50 pages of endnotes) clears up the controversy.