HBO’s ‘The Mystery Of D.B. Cooper’ Is About An Unsolved Skyjacking And The Nature Of Obsession

As HBO Max ramps up its content offerings, it’s aiming to compete with Netflix in a space otherwise dominated by the veteran streamer: True crime. In addition to Murder of Middle Beach, The Vow, and Alabama Snake, HBO also recently launched The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, John Dower’s (Thrilla in Manilla) documentary examining the nation’s only unsolved skyjacking.

As the documentary lays out, Dan (or D.B.) Cooper — a pseudonym of the unidentified man — hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft flying between Portland and Seattle in November 1971. He ransomed $200,000 from the FBI and then parachuted out of the plane. In spite of extensive manhunt, the whereabouts of Cooper was never discovered. Investigators still don’t know who Dan Cooper is, nor do they know if he survived. It’s one of those enduring unsolved mysteries that resurface in the popular conscience every few years, most recently when Mad Men yarn-wallers speculated that Jon Hamm’s Don Draper could be D.B. Cooper (it was the second most popular Mad Men theory, after the Sharon Tate theory that originated on this site).

Dower’s doc explores four theories, and if there’s anything wrong with The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, it’s that each theory is so plausible that they almost cancel each other out. I was convinced that each Dan Cooper suspect was the culprit until HBO did a deep dive on the next suspect, complete with talking-head interviews with subjects convinced their husband, or father, or former neighbor was Cooper. A number of authors (ahem, conspiracy theorists) weigh in as well. Ultimately, there is enough evidence to make the case that any one of the four could have been D.B. Cooper, which is both fun and frustrating. By the halfway point, I was certain one of the four did it, but by the end, I was no closer to understanding which of the four was responsible. The reality is, it’s probably none of the four.

In the end, it almost doesn’t matter who Dan Cooper was, because the documentary isn’t as interested in uncovering that mystery as it is in scratching the same itch so many of us had while watching Mad Men. It’s not about who D.B. Cooper is; it’s about who we are, and the nature of our obsessions. Take, for example, a retired Florida woman in the documentary who claims (repeatedly) to have lost years of her life trying to prove that her husband — who allegedly confessed on his death bed — was D.B. Cooper. While the evidence — pieced together with her “memory assistant” — is often compelling, she could have easily arrived at her conclusions by working backward from what the country collectively knew about D.B. Cooper at the time and fitting her husband’s actions into the timeline.

Sometimes, we create narratives in order to give our lives meaning, and that’s exactly what Dower’s documentary sneakily explores in interviews with friends and family members of those convinced they knew Dan Cooper, and in “experts” who have devoted years of their lives to exploring the mystery. There’s an elderly man, for instance, who has been walking the woods where Cooper purportedly parachuted every day for decades, searching for clues. Meanwhile, there’s another gentleman so consumed by the obsession that he has given up on all the other aspects of his life, and now he lives in squalor, surrounded by “documents” and “evidence” upon which he confers meaning.

The reality is, D.B. Cooper is probably dead. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to survive parachuting out of a commercial airliner. In fact, years after the hijacking, a boy found a small cache of banknotes from the ransom along the Columbia River. It’s in that river where D.B. Cooper’s remains probably lie. Our obsession, however, will continue to live for an eternity, or at least until Reddit finally figures it out.

‘The Mystery Of D.B. Cooper’ is now available to stream on HBO Max.