"Thornwell," whose story eerily recalls the Dreyfus case, is about the black GI who was given LSD by his Army interrogators to make him confess to a theft he didn't commit.
The story -- tonight from 9 to 11 on Channel 9 -- is a clear and bitter indictment of a sorry episode of martial justice (which is to justice, as someone once remarked, as martial music is to music). It is more than that. It is an indictment of the attitudes so often seen in the white male power structure itself.
Racism is what the story is really about. The LSD isn't even mentioned until literally the last minute of the two hours. Long before that, we watch the white lawyer tell James Thornwell, "Be patient, don't think about it," only to be told quietly, "It's all I've been thinking about for the last 16 years."
We hear a white lieutenant tell him, "Start acting like a soldier," only to be told quietly, "I act like I'm treated."
We see a succession of white Army officer interrogators, all of them totally undistinguished human beings, reedy and bespectacled or sloppy and soft; their threat lies not in themselves, but in the institutions they embody, the vast and overwhelming powers they have assumed as their heritage.
Glynn Turman at first seems not quite fierce enough to convince as the bold and independent Thornwell, but he grows into the role, giving at the last a bravura performance as an intelligent and motivated man who falls into a Kafkaesque nightmare when the authorities jump to the conclusion that he stole some top-secret documents from the office where he was a clerk.
Because they have a preconceived notion that Thornwell had a motive for the theft, they simply cannot free themselves from their assumption that therefore he must be guilty. They are a study in frustration, smiling to gain their victim's confidence -- "If I tell you something, that's the way it is" -- and breaking into a rage when confronted once again with denials.
In one satisfying scene, Thornwell is held down by three men who threaten to break his legs. He dares them to do it, defies them to beat him up, three on one, shouts them into shamefaced silence. Unfortunately, this is one of the last small victories Thornwell has. A special agent, played with sleazy relish by Vincent Gardenia, starts playing with his mind as the case escalates into a cause.
The picture uses the fashionable film technique of jumping around in time, mixing past and present in an apparent effort to engage watchers who have only a small child's attention span. Maybe it helped. I don't see how. The story as it stands is strong enough to hold even the interest of the Congress, which last December awarded Thornwell $625,000 on the basis of a 1979 account on "60 Minutes."
That documentary was produced by Harry Moses, an old TV hand who is responsible for this longer version of the compelling story. He even uses an edited version of the transcript of a pre-court-martial hearing by the Army, a chilling duel between Thornwell's young attorney and the massive forces of the institution, as armored and witless as a dinosaur. The scene lasts 11 minutes and consists almost entirely of Army agents stonewalling, insisting that the information he wants from them is privileged.
Today Thornwell, who was transformed from a promising young man into a misfit unable to hold a job or keep a marriage together, who has suffered headaches, nightmares, pain and depression for 16 years, is trying to put his life back on the track.
Though the shorthand reference for this case is "that guy who was given LSD by the Army," we can thank Harry Moses for being correct and courageous enough to keep his eye on the ball: The villain wasn't the LSD. The villain is a system, a culture, a morality that can produce people in charge who can do such a thing.