‘D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?’ documentary finds the right tone, but doesn’t find the hijacker

Endlessly fascinating Netflix series considers every theory about the mysterious culprit who commandeered a jet in 1971 and parachuted into infamy.

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A sketch of the runaway hijacker known as D.B. Cooper prompted much speculation about his identity.

FBI

Even if you don’t know the details of the D.B. Cooper hijacking caper, you might have seen one of a myriad of Cooper references scattered across the pop culture landscape over the years, like so many fluttering dollar bills in the wind.

  • In “Loki,” we see the title character on Northwest Orient Airlines 305. He hands the flight attendant a note and says, “I have a bomb.” Later, when Owen Wilson’s Agent Mobius is debriefing Tom Hiddleston’s title character, he exclaims, “I can’t believe you were D.B. Cooper!” Loki replies, “I was young, and I lost a bet to Thor.”
  • On “Breaking Bad,” when Walter White enters Saul Goodman’s office for the first time, Walter is wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. Saul cracks, “Ah, look at you. Should I call the FBI and tell them I found D.B. Cooper?”
  • As “Mad Men” was drawing to a close, there was feverish speculation about Don Draper’s shady military history and his wobbly moral compass, and the numerous airplane references throughout the series — all of it meant to imply Don would eventually become D.B. Cooper. (Pretty sure that didn’t happen.)
‘D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?’

Untitled

A four-episode docuseries available Wednesday on Netflix.

There was a feature film in 1981 titled, “The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper,” with Treat Williams as the infamous hijacker and Robert Duvall as the investigator who vows to capture him. Cooper was also referenced in a number of novels; the 2004 film “Without a Paddle”; episodes of TV shows such as “Twin Peaks” and “Newsradio,” “Blacklist” and “Drunk History.” And there was an HBO documentary in 2020 titled “The Mystery of D.B. Cooper.”

Now comes the expertly crafted Netflix four-part documentary series asking the question: “D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?,” which once again shines the spotlight one of the great mysteries of all time. Unlike other 20th century crime stories that horrify us even as they fascinate us — the Green River Killer, Son of Sam, Zodiac, et al. — there’s something almost whimsical about the D.B. Cooper case, because it involved a onetime event in which nobody was hurt. Spoiler alert: If you expect this well-directed and endlessly fascinating series to provide the definitive answer, well, we’ve underestimated D.B. Cooper once again.

In the first episode, titled “Take the Money and Jump,” director Marina Zenovich neatly lays out the details of the case. On Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 24, 1971, a man in a business suit who had purchased a ticket under the name of “Dan Cooper” boarded a Portland-to-Seattle flight, handed a flight attendant a note saying he had a bomb, opened his briefcase to give her a glimpse of what appeared to be dynamite and stated his demands: $200,000 in cash, four parachutes (in case one was rigged to fail) and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle. The aircraft landed, the passengers were released, an airport executive handed Cooper the cash and the parachutes, the Boeing 727 took off — and Cooper parachuted from the plane, never to be seen again.

With the media misidentifying the suspect as “D.B. Cooper” in early reports and that moniker sticking, the FBI initiated an extensive manhunt and investigation. The sketch released to the public was such an everyman depiction that hundreds of people were certain they knew this guy. Director Zenovich alternates between appropriately grainy-looking re-creations and archival news footage as we meet a number of prime suspects, including Duane Weber, who was living a double life as a career criminal and gave a deathbed confession to his wife; transgender woman Barbara Dayton, a former Merchant Marine who told friends she was D.B. Cooper; Sheridan Peterson, who worked for Boeing; Dick Briggs, who claimed to have been a Special Forces soldier in Vietnam and lived in the area; and the most promising lead of all, one Robert Rackstraw, who checked off more boxes than anyone and was evasive about whether he was Cooper until the day he died.

Author and TV producer Thomas J. Colbert is most prominently featured among the many journalists who became obsessed with finding D.B. and he builds an extensive, elaborate, wide-ranging case that Rackstraw is indeed Cooper — but questions are raised about “confirmation bias,” the tendency to compile information that supports one’s theory.

In the third installment, titled “Seeing Jesus in the Toast,” we dive into some increasingly far-out theories, e.g., speculation Cooper was a former intelligence operative, and the identification of certain “rare earth elements” in a tie recovered from the plane that indicate Cooper might have been working at Boeing, and (sigh) gematria stuff involving converting letters into numbers and ta da! It all means … something. Or nothing. Probably somewhere in between.

As Cooper’s legend grows, the Internet gives rises to an ever-expanding range of theories, with some looking north and claiming the fictional comic book character Dan Cooper, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, was the inspiration for the real-life hijacker.

The FBI closed the case against D.B. Cooper in 2016. If Cooper is still out there, he would be at least in his 80s by now. One way or another, he’s long gone, and for once, an unsolved mystery seems like the best possible ending.

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