Sunday, January 01, 2023

American Experience: The Lie Detector

Many laid claim to inventing it, including a police officer and an academic. Somewhat ironically, it was the cop who worried about its civil liberties implications. The academic was the weirdo who created Wonder Woman. Right from the start, the so-called “polygraph” was controversial, but it eventually supplied some work for ambulance chaser F. Lee Bailey, who hooked people up to it on his early 1980s reality TV show. The history and disputed authorship of the polygraph is chronicled in writer-director Rob Rapley’s The Lie Detector, which airs Tuesday as part of the current season of American Experience.

John Larsen was a rookie cop with a PhD, who actually wanted to make policing more scientific and less thuggish. On the Berkley, CA police force, he had a reformer Chief, who was open to his potential creations. A lot of shrinks had already created dodgy lie detectors, measuring one thing or another, but with the help of his high school intern, Leonarde Keeler, Larsen put them all together and created the iconic print out of the subject’s responses.

Yet, Larsen quickly started second guessing his invention after it supposedly help solve a rash of thefts at a Berkley women’s dorm. He would argue his device only measures strong emotional responses and not necessarily lies. However, Keeler broke with his one-time mentor, applying his lie detector with great fanfare in Los Angeles. William Marston was an inventor of one of the half-baked predecessors, but he could talk a good game. Eventually, the three became bitter rivals of each other in the media.

Rapley’s documentary is only one-hour long, but it tells an interesting story. The subject definitely raises issues regarding civil liberties and law enforcement, but it does so in a reasonable, levelheaded manner. It helps that all of his talking heads are real experts, rather than cheesy celebrities trying to virtue-signal.

Rapley and his commentators are also refreshingly critical of Marston, presenting him as a huckster and a bit of creep. Nobody is intimidated by his Wonder Woman legacy, but the doc shrewdly draws a parallel between the lie detector and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.

This is a rare doc that maybe feels like it could have expanded further on its subject, but the lack of polemics is definitely appreciated. Frankly, this is all the Marston you will ever need to see, so feel free to skip
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and the doc Wonder Women—watch The Lie Detector instead. Recommended for general audiences, it premieres Tuesday (1/3) on most PBS stations. Happy New Year.