Screenplay by Austin Allan James
Story by Andrew Watters
A film about the science of credibility and credibility assessment, and its importance in connection with a politically charged investigation.
ANDREW is a polygraph examiner with the San Francisco Police Department. He is attending a refresher course at the National Center for Credibility Assessment in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
The instructor goes over the essentials from the latest lesson. Microexpressions are hidden signs of emotion written on peoples faces, and anyone can be trained to recognize them. They are important for polygraph examiners to know because the state of the art is the camera-assisted polygraph in which facial expressions are recorded for later analysis. A microexpression in response to a particular question indicates “leakage” of emotion, and often reveals deception.
The attendees move to a polygraph observation room and watch the instructor conduct a live demonstration showing microexpressions in action on an unsuspecting layperson.
“Have you ever falsified a record of continuing legal education?”
“Have you ever lied to or misled a client?”
“Have you ever lied under oath?”
“…No.” Blip– the examinee displays a fleeting microexpression of fear. Deception is indicated.
The attendees return to the classroom after the demo and the instructor conducts an after action review with time-stamped video, explaining what he saw and when.
After the completion of his refresher course, Andrew returns to San Francisco.
One day, Andrew’s supervisor comes over to his office and sits down. He has a sensitive, complex assignment that requires the utmost integrity and discretion. That’s why Andrew was selected for it.
The assignment is to conduct a polygraph examination of a sitting Congressman relating to the Congressman’s alleged use of campaign funds to support an affair. On the one hand, it is critical to uncover the truth and the Congressman “volunteered” to take the examination. On the other hand, there would be political repercussions for the SFPD in the event the examination goes badly for the Congressman. After all, he has powerful friends.
Andrew understands the gravity of the assignment and potential consequences. He sets to work preparing for the examination, which is to be conducted in two days. Most of his preparation is reviewing reports and textbooks, plus doing research on the Congressman. He doesn’t find anything unusual and prepares his questions accordingly.
On the day before the examination, Andrew presents his plan of examination to his supervisor. The supervisor and Andrew go over some of the details and the supervisor signs off. It’s showtime.
On the day of the examination, Andrew clears his head with an early trail run in Marin. The sunrise sure is beautiful from the top of Mt. Tam. Then he snaps back to reality and heads to work.
At police headquarters, Andrew sets up the polygraph suite and goes back to his office. He’s surprised to see the Congressman in the hallway along with a half dozen staffers and aides. Although they won’t be attending the polygraph, having staffers around to carry bags and fetch coffee gives the Congressman a sense of control and being in charge, which is important to him today.
The Congressman looks like a million bucks in his bespoke charcoal suit, and he’s holding court with a big smile on his face. This is the man who supposedly funneled half a million dollars in campaign funds to a mistress under the nose of his campaign manager. You wouldn’t know it looking at him.
Andrew’s supervisor introduces himself to the Congressman and lets him know that it’s time. The Congressman hangs back with his staff for a moment just to show who’s boss, then after he’s said his goodbyes he’s finally ready. Andrew introduces himself to the Congressman and gets a joke in response. Apparently the Congressman finds the whole situation amusing, but hopefully he won’t in a few minutes.
Andrew explains the ground rules for the polygraph examination. The polygraph tests the “fight or flight” response by asking difficult questions. There are not going to be any “surprise” questions. The first series of questions will be a “known lie” during which the Congressman’s reactions will be measured as a baseline for the rest of the examination. The examination is being conducted in a room with one-way glass but this does not mean that the examinee is always being watched. The examination covers the last seven years of the Congressman’s life. Any questions?
“How many polygraph examiners does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” The Congressman laughs with delight at how clever he is. “Answer, none– they’re too busy measuring the lightbulb to see how honest it is!” The Congressman lets out a loud belly laugh. He just can’t help it.
Andrew explains that this is a serious proceeding and that the Congressman must sign a consent form before the examination can be conducted. The Congressman signs the form with an air of superiority. He’s above it all.
The examination begins.
“What is your name?”
“Are the lights in this room on?”
The examination continues with questions about the Congressman’s background.
Cut to the observation room, where Andrew’s supervisor and a detective are watching the Congressman. Nothing appears unusual.
Back in the polygraph room, Andrew is continuing with questions about the Congressman’s personal life.
“Have you ever cheated on your wife?”
“Whoa! Hold on there, mister. This is about my campaign, not my personal life.”
“I’m sorry sir, but these are standard comparison questions that I ask of all examinees. You need to answer the question. Have you ever cheated on your wife?
“…No.” Blip. The video recorder catches the Congressman in a lie based on his microexpression of contempt. This is just a comparison question used to gauge the Congressman’s reactions; the relevant questions about campaign finance will follow later. But the Congressman still has to tell the truth on the comparison questions.
The examination continues with several more blips in the Congressman’s performance. The observers are not amused. And then the relevant questions start.
“Have you ever misappropriated campaign funds?”
“Have you ever given campaign funds to a mistress or other person who was not entitled to them?”
“Have you ever falsified a campaign finance report?”
Andrew repeats this series of questions multiple times in order to get an accurate reading on the Congressman. When Andrew is satisfied, the examination concludes. The Congressman is all smiles, apparently unaware that he answered the questions falsely. He leaves.
The observers and Andrew ask each other for impressions. The consensus is that the Congressman lied on numerous questions in the examination, including the key questions on campaign finance. The question is how to word the report to say that without really saying it.
Andrew’s supervisor encourages him to be generous to the Congressman in the report because the Congressman is powerful and connected. The supervisor says that the Congressman probably did embezzle funds from the campaign, but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few; here, Congress does not need yet another scandal over misuse of campaign funds when there are many other more pressing problems that require its attention.
Andrew steadfastly refuses to cave in. He writes a scathing report burying the Congressman for numerous false answers in the examination. Andrew concludes that the Congressman exhibited “duping delight” during the examination, which makes him a narcissistic sociopath. Not surprising that politics attracts those kinds of people; what is surprising is the public’s tolerance of those kinds of people when they have been caught.
The next day, Andrew is fired. The stated reason is “a conflict with a co-worker.” His supervisor didn’t even have the balls to say the conflict was with him. Andrew packs up his office and says goodbye to his friends. He leaves and goes home, and cries. This is an example of what happens when the powerful win a battle with the weak.
After Andrew is fired, he does a lot of soul-searching. He gets depressed and watches daytime TV while slamming Coors Lights and collecting unemployment. His career is over.
Then Andrew does what no one expected. He fights back by going to the New York Times with his story.
They interview him with skepticism, but they mention going to a technical advisor with Andrew’s polygraph charts and video in order to get assistance in developing the story. The technical advisor comes through and corroborates Andrew’s version of the facts. It turns out the technical advisor is the instructor from the National Center for Credibility Assessment who Andrew took a continuing education course from earlier. They share a warm telephone call and Andrew says that the most important thing to him was to stand for something– the pursuit of truth, even if it is not attained or accepted.
The New York Times runs a front page story on the Congressman. News reports mention that the House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation into the Congressman based on Andrew’s work.
The next day, Andrew is walking to his car when he’s met by a U.S. Marshal. He’s being subpoenaed to give testimony before the House Ethics Committee.
The film closes with Andrew being sworn in as a witness to testify about his report. An epilogue states that the Congressman was later indicted by a Federal grand jury for embezzling campaign funds.