In this city, cops are kings…and brutality reigns.
PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (1976)—This just in: cops are brutal, and sometimes break the law to get confessions out of people…
Police brutality has become a cliché. In modern cinema, all a director has to do is show a suspect in an interrogation room, the back of a detective, and a closing door to suggest a beat down. There was a time, however, when police brutality was still a shocking concept. The street was conscious of it, but general society was blissfully unaware of the travesties occurring behind closed doors.
The Thin Blue Lie details the efforts by journalist Jonathan Neumann to reveal unchecked civil rights violations in Philadelphia during the bicentennial. It has a neat '70s vibe and a handful of innovative moments, but tries to be too many movies at once. The police corruption angle is better handled in efforts like The Shield and Training Day, and the "David vs. Goliath" story isn't as dramatic as in movies like Erin Brockovich. The focus on journalistic integrity (the heart of The Thin Blue Lie) is powerful, but not enough to save an uneven film.
Facts of the Case
Jonathan Neumann (Rob Morrow) moves into Philly from a small town where he was a star journalist. He immediately sets about not fitting in. He eats, sleeps, and drinks journalism. At the "press only" bar, he refuses drinks from would-be comrades while getting shot down by stunning women.
Jonathan takes over the courtroom beat from the politically mobile Phil Chadway (Randy Quaid). On the first day he watches a frightened black witness claim that he was beaten during interrogation by a man in a bunny suit. After hearing more unusual testimonies, Jonathan begins to suspect massive abuses of police authority. When he presents the idea to his colleagues, they are openly resentful of the implications. Philadelphia is a great city, and those who rock the boat are not treated well.
Jonathan stays true to his journalistic instincts and pursues the story, despite pressure from his peers and the pesky police. But the closer he gets to the truth, the more danger he puts himself in.
The Thin Blue Lie is not a bad film by any means. The story is not completely predictable, the acting isn't objectionable, and there is a fair amount of dramatic tension built up.
Yet it isn't a gripping film either. The story often has a one-track mind, much like the protagonist. The plot moves ahead full steam, with no annoying distractions. Find a juicy tidbit, research it, piss off the police, get threatened, find out something else. Repeat.
Other times, The Thin Blue Lie tries to work too many angles. Is it a crime drama, a whistleblower's story, or a conspiracy theory? A buddy film, perhaps? The Thin Blue Lie starts down all of those roads and more, but rarely takes an arc to the end. When the denouement arrives, it arrives in a flurry and ends the same way. The red herrings do build tension, but the whole does not feel cohesive. This gripe may be unfair; The Thin Blue Lie is based on the real life exploits of Jonathan Neumann, who has won numerous Pulitzer Prizes. Since the creators clearly tried to be true to his experience, the plot was likely constrained by actual events. Yet the plot takes many paths and masters none.
The acting is solid, but the characters don't grow in meaningful ways. Everyone does open their eyes to the truth, which is objectively satisfying. But the growth seems too pat. The love interest swoops in to help out of nowhere, after dumping on Jonathan the whole movie. The mayor (Paul Sorvino) skates by on a one-note performance. Perhaps the best transformation is that of Randy Quaid's Phil, who struggles but does the right thing. Rob Morrow's portrayal is presumably accurate as he incorporates good and the bad sides of Jonathan. Somehow his mannerisms seem forced or self-conscious. Rob Morrow does fit in well with the '70s vibe; I could see him as a leading man in that era.
The audio is passable and nothing more. The soundtrack is a bit overwhelming at times, swelling with patriotism and/or menace. The brutality sequences are boomy and echoey. I can't tell if the sound was a throwback to the '70s, if so I would be more forgiving. But if you are looking for a speaker workout, this is not the film for you.
The video is also shoddy. The colors were muted, the contrast poor. There were massive amounts of grain and scratches. Again, this gripe is invalid if they were shooting for a 30-year old look. Without knowing the intent of the filmmakers, I have to judge the video quality by what I see, which is poor. Had there been an extra explaining the look and feel of the movie, I could wholeheartedly congratulate the filmmakers. But sadly, no such extra exists to clarify for us.
How'd you like that segue into the extras? I didn't know Paramount was spelled N-O-E-X-T-R-A-S. Nothing to see here folks. Move along before I call the white bunny.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The one constant thread is journalistic integrity. In that sense, The Thin Blue Lie is an uplifting tale of honor and persistence. Jonathan Neumann is a stellar journalist, and it is nice to see true stars doing what they love.
The feel of the movie is its strongest point. The '70s vibe is convincing. For half of the movie I wondered whether it was actually shot in 1976. The telephones are clunky, the colors are brown, the cars are funky jalopies. The attention to detail, not only in set but cinematic style, is impressive.
There was a good amount of tension at the bookends of the movie, with a rather sizeable lull in the middle. Most of the tension comes from the "bad" guys, who are the detectives. The most powerful scenes involve them. One of the best things about The Thin Blue Lie is the sympathetic outlet given to the cops—doing what they have to do to remain alive and employed. In one creepy, atmospheric sequence, Jonathan meets the police on their own turf and winds up in a graveyard.
Sometimes a TV movie is just a TV movie. Not good or bad, just indifferent. If you enjoy a good TV movie to fill a couple hours, this one fits the bill. As far as the DVD goes, this isn't one I'd clamor to have in my collection. There are no extras and little replay value, and the audio-visual aspects are not at all compelling.
Rob Morrow and Randy Quaid are free to go. Paul Sorvino is given a citation for jaywalking. Paramount is sentenced to two hours in the interrogation room with the white bunny.
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