'CBS Wednesday Night Movie': how not to handle an important issue

"Thornwell," based on a real-life incident already reported by "60 Minutes," raises more big issues than you can shake a TV antenna at. The hero is an Army man wrongly accused of espionage, possibly because he is black. Most of his accusers are white. He refuses to confess, protesting his innocence. So the "intelligence community" goes to work on him, using every method short of thumbscrews to coerce a confession. When all else fails, they haul out their secret weapon: LSD.

That doesn't work, either. Finally giving up, they boot him out of the military. By this time his brain seems no longer to function normally, and he doesn't know why, because the drug was given to him surreptitiously. Years later, using rights granted under the Freedom of Information Act, he uncovers the facts about his persecution, including its LSD climax. But it may be too late to repair the damage done to his life.

It's a harrowing story, and a timely one. Some ugly reports have surfaced in recent years concerning government-sponsored experiments with dangerous drugs, and just last month Congress awarded the real Thornwell more than half a million dollars "for damages inflicted by the Army," as CBS puts it. Moreover, the incident has racial overtones -- Thornwell's blackness is used as a weapon against him -- that unfortunately are sometimes as relevant today as in the early 1960s, when the events actually happened.

As dramatized on "The CBS Wednesday Night Movie" (Wednesday, Jan. 28, check local listings), however, the Thornwell case carries less meaning and impact than it might. Though the script (by Michael de Guzman) steers mostly clear of sensationalism, it is clumsy and distracting in its leaps between the distant and recent past. Apparently the producers couldn't decide which was more riveting -- the original nightmare, or the shattered life that resulted from it. So they decided to have both. The film lurches between the young Thornwell, facing terrible persecution, and the mature Thornwell trying to figure out what happened.

Worse yet, the movie is badly repetitious, full of redundant scenes in which Thornwell goes through the same motions again and again. . . . Motivations remain murky, too. It's never really clear why the government is so obsessed with the idea that Thornwell is a traitor, and why it stays on his back despite an absence of evidence to indicate he is guilty.

Along with these problems, the characters are stiffly drawn -- recognizable TV types, every one, despite their roots in Thornwell's real life history. Fortunately, a few of the performers make an impression anyway: Glynn Turman has commendable strength and dignity in the title role, and Vincent Gardenia is implacable as an apparently amoral agent with a nice-guy facade. Craig Wasson has effective moments as another agent, until he lapses into overacting, and Nicholas Kepros is positively demonic as the villain with the LSD.

Edited to an hour or so, clarified, and shorn of its stereotypes, this overlong show (two hours including commercials) might have a lot more power. As it stands, it deserves to be thought about, even if the actual watching is a disappointing experience. Despite its limitations as drama, its implications -- involving racial tension and government secrecy -- are profoundly important.

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