This county sheriff is just doing his job

Times Staff Writer

Sheriff Ronald Hewett of Brunswick County, N.C., is leading a raid on a suspected gambling den midway through "Independent Lens: Sheriff," a PBS documentary set for broadcast tonight on KCET.

"I'm Sheriff Ronald Hewett of Brunswick County," he announces in an unthreatening tone to the woman behind the counter. "I'm the law here."

If Joe Friday had a Southern accent and was assigned to a backwoods beat, he'd have been Ronald Hewett.

"Sheriff" follows Hewett on his rounds. None of it is the stuff of action dramas: a PR stop at a church, the retirement of a police dog, a talk to school kids, a missing person's case, a garden-variety homicide, a hunt for an escaped prisoner, a trip to a sheriff's convention.

It starts slow. Hewett, with his tight haircut and thin mustache, is not charismatic or larger-than-life.

He seems to have some trouble getting his deputies to follow his orders, particularly at the school assembly where the deputies prefer talking to each other than to the kids. In another scene, he becomes exasperated when deputies are slow to dispense fliers about a suspect.

"I don't get it," he says.

At first the ordinariness can be off-putting. Why are we following this guy? Where is my guns-blazing car chase? Where is Bruce Willis when I need him?

But "Sheriff" is seductive. Slowly it hits you: Hewett's charm is that he's just what he seems to be -- a nonspectacular guy devoted to his job and determined to do his best to protect and serve the people who elected him.

Maybe he couldn't unravel a multinational terrorist plot, but he's the kind of dedicated, no-nonsense cop you'd feel confident calling if somebody was hassling your kids or a stranger was rattling front doors while your neighbors were away.

He tells a Baptist gathering that he has no problem with the local nudist camp as long as the members stay behind their tall walls. But he doesn't cotton to the idea of a strip club setting up shop elsewhere in the county.

"We don't want the Mafia-laced strip club of Myrtle County in our county," he says as the Baptists nod in agreement.

By the end, the viewer cares about Hewett and respects his sense of duty. The most poignant moment of "Sheriff" comes when Hewett stares at the camera and explains a hunting accident that nearly killed him.

The style of "Sheriff'" is cinema verite, sans narration. Be prepared to do your own Google search to find out the location, size and demographics of Brunswick County.

Like the selection of the leading man, the lack of hand-holding narration can be bothersome. But it, too, sneaks up on you as a technique and, in the end, it enhances the sense of reality.

A voice-over might have seemed intrusive, as if the filmmaker was trying to pump up the importance of the effort.

A TV journalist laying out the facts about a slice of Americana and letting the viewers decide the significance. What a concept!


'Independent Lens: Sheriff'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Edie Falco...Host

Filmmaker Daniel Kraus.

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