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TV preview: Hank Stuever on Discovery Channel's D.C. Sniper documentary

GROSS ANATOMY: "Takedown" doesn't allow John Allen Muhammad's story to unfold naturally.
GROSS ANATOMY: "Takedown" doesn't allow John Allen Muhammad's story to unfold naturally. (Steve Helber - AP)

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo's killing spree in October 2002 happened just long enough ago that the saga now belongs in the collective millennial-age, post-9/11 scrapbook of Washington area anxiety and paranoia.

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Remember? The squatting while pumping gas, the jumping around, the zigzagging through strip-mall parking lots? And as Virginia prepares for Muhammad's scheduled execution, it should be easy enough to convey that fear without much effort -- it's still an unbelievable chain of events, heartbreakingly filled with random victims and dedicated heroes.

Alas, "Anatomy of a Takedown: The Washington Sniper," conveniently airing Monday night on the Discovery Channel, seems to have been made from a kit some enterprising production company might sell to true-crime producers: You don't need much new, just stick in some old footage, cast some reenactors and interview (once again) the cops who worked the case. The kit provides the siren sounds, the ka-chungs, the swooshing edits, the diagrams of bullet trajectories.

And don't forget the trope of the ominous-voiced narrator. Does he really need to say "In the battle between good and evil, only one side can win"? Or this dreck: "Blood will almost certainly continue to flow"?

In between, we listen to the memories of Montgomery County police Capt. Barney Forsythe, who helped work the case, and Nancy Demme, the just-appointed information officer who found herself in the center of all that panic and wild information (boxy white vans! Tarot cards!). No explanation is given for the absence of the drama's most memorable cop, Chief Charles Moose. This is "Anatomy of a Takedown," after all, so it is necessarily more concerned with ballistics, clues and command centers than with personalities, context or meaning.

On television, you can't just let a crime story tell itself anymore. We are too dumb to follow along without the cheap "CSI"-knockoff dressing, the special effects and quick-edit magic: spattered blood! Ka-chung! Close-up of bullet hole in storefront window! Swoosh, ka-chung! Only these tricks can convey how local and federal investigators broke the case and arrested Muhammad and Malvo at a Maryland rest area more than three weeks after they started shooting people from the trunk of an old Chevy Caprice. At last, after so much swooshing and ka-chung-ing, MoCo SWAT officer Jeff Nyce recalls the nighttime raid, and dragging the sleeping, startled Muhammad from the parked car. When you've been a cop for a while, Nyce says, you come across people who have a look in their eyes and "you know they're death."

Do they teach this sort of true-crime docu-talk at the academy now?

Anatomy of a Takedown: The Washington Sniper

(one hour) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.


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