“The Thin Blue Lie,” a Showtime telepic about a police conspiracy in 1970s Philadelphia, is so lacking in subtlety it makes every character except its lead look like a complete dolt. Shrill and shockingly uninvolving, the made-for does a grave disservice to an important story, relegating everyone to caricature and making a true tale seem wholly manufactured. The operative word in the title, unfortunately, is “thin.”
As soon as Jonathan Neumann (Rob Morrow) takes over the court beat for the Philadelphia Examiner, he begins to see a Pulitzer staring him in the face. Everywhere our intrepid reporter turns, the view is obvious — homicide cops are beating suspects into confessions, some of which are clearly false. But remarkably, only Neumann — a Serpico figure sans beard, sans badge — can see that this is happening, despite the fact that every defendant has a face purple with bruises and a consistent story of abuse to tell.
It’s perfectly reasonable to propose that folks in the ’70s didn’t question the police — even that they didn’t want to know what happened behind closed doors as long as the crime rate was down. That’s still true, as the filmmakers remind us in an opening montage about the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles and the Diallo case in New York. But in “The Thin Blue Lie,” the blindness is absurd. When Randy Quaid, as goofy but helpful sidekick Phil Chadway, finally admits that Neumann “might be onto something,” the line’s effect is comic — he sounds more like Homer Simpson than Woodward or Bernstein.
Writer Daniel Helfgott and director Roger Young keep everything at the same pitch throughout, and Morrow’s one-note performance doesn’t help. He’s neither moved by the horrors nor thrilled at the discovery of important evidence; he’s just loud. And so very outraged.
Neumann’s outrage, though, pales in comparison to that of Mayor Frank Rizzo, played with obscenely over-the-top bluster by Paul Sorvino. A former police chief, Rizzo is in the midst of trying to change the city charter so he can run for a third term, and every time he sees a newspaper headline about bad cops, he curses or throws his breakfast. Otherwise, he makes kissy noises at his dog.
As Neumann gets closer and closer to completing his story, the “goon squad” of bad cops starts to threaten him. His phone is tapped, his apartment’s broken into, he’s manhandled in an elevator and then a graveyard and then in the back alley of a bar. All of it probably happened — it’s not very unbelievable; in this telepic, even the truth feels false.