Shock Around The Clock

Film still for Shock Around The Clock

Shrugged off in the US but adored in the UK, 24 tells us more in its second series about America's post-9/11 needs and fears than anything the cinema has yet come up with, says David Thomson

No one claimed to be surprised. Though fans clamoured during the first series of 24 that, of course, there had to be a second season, I never met anyone who thought a second run could live up to the first. It was not just predictable, but a despondent given, that in a second series the tension between the exultant madness of the form (that all of this was happening in one 24-hour period) and the drab experience (that it was taking months to unfold) would prove unsustainable. That tautness snapped when, during the second series with such circumstantial detail as an alleged president, long-range bomber aircraft, and references to the Middle East that mingled military discretion with authentic ignorance America got into its own, real-life crisis, its 23.59 and ticking. After all, Donald Rumsfeld was more frightening than anyone on the show.

At this point, an aside no matter that any digression seems inimical to the tick-tock concentration of 24. Still, here is my dilemma: in the US the second series of 24 is over. Sadder to say, I think it's close to forgotten, in midtown or in the Mojave. But in the British Isles the tension goes on and rises to... There's the rub: engaged to reflect on the series as a whole, how can I not mention the ending? But as your servant, dear readers, do I have the heart to spoil this specious entertainment on the lip of your gaping maws?

The sharpest pleasure in 24 has always been to awaken the scenarist in us all. It was evident early in the first series that hooked viewers were not simply asking story questions like, "Do you trust Senator Palmer's wife?" Or, "Are Jack and Nina over?" No, we were identifying with the team behind the show, and their self-imposed dilemma. We wanted to know, "How are they going to spin this out through the middle sections without losing us?" Or, "It's not just who is the traitor, but is anyone telling the truth?" Or, "The secret is, it's all about cell phones."

In other words, the team behind 24 had cottoned on to the idea that while their 'story' was delirious, their own strategies and machinations in storytelling, or in doing serial television, were equally riveting. The show had a thrill that reminded me of early Godard: like an educational model in a course called New Ways to Make Movies (before everyone falls asleep). Television feasts on any situation where event and commentary are intertwined (any sporting contest; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; the summer of Watergate). More of this anon if there's room for anon.

Still, that old-fashioned part of me (for I suppose it's by now both old-fashioned and futuristic to talk of Godard) saw one way in which the second series might proceed. For while the first series had apparently turned on the question of whether or not 'they' could assassinate Senator David Palmer, it had derived most of its energy from the domestic cliff-hanger: did Jack love or need his wife Teri or his assistant Nina most? To put that in a Godardian context, it was a matter of whether Jean-Paul Belmondo could or should trust Anna Karina in Pierrot le fou and, concomitantly, whether with all his foreboding intellectual analysis of trust, he only proved himself unworthy of her and bound to incite her betrayal.

So some personal melodrama was essential to the second series, because in our stupid televisual way we care more about such things than about whether the world will be saved. (There is, in any case, no 'world' on view in 24 that deserves or even wants to be saved; so much of the show is throwing craps on the brink.) The initial problem set up in the second series was promising enough: that somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area there is a nuclear bomb that will explode. Call in Jack Bauer. But as someone who felt close to the mechanical heart of 24 in its first series, I knew Nina had to come back. She had murdered the pregnant Teri; she had revealed herself as the ultimate femme fatale and nasty. She had nowhere to go but up. And since I've always seen Jack as a rather puffy man-child (isn't this the essence of Kiefer Sutherland?), very adult in his strategic thinking but childlike in his emotions, it figured he could be taken again because he believed in true love, especially when felt for someone who had already tried to destroy him once. The only thing Jack needs in life is Nina the best person to dismantle him. That's why he never sleeps. And won't until death wraps him.

Aside: in movies as in modern American political life (or half-life), never neglect the persistent character weaknesses call it the obsessive-compulsive traits, if you like of stars and leaders. Thus, so much comes down to the way Bill Clinton longed to seem smart (like Warren Beatty), while George W. is desperate to seem strong ( la Bruce Willis). Please don't neglect these asides, or think they come out of nowhere. Nowhere is OK, too. They are every bit as good and interesting as the commercials shown during 24 in America more of that anon.

So I could see why 24 would need to bring Nina back from the deep dungeons where she had been secured. She might know, or have a way of knowing, where the bomb was; and she was, in a board-game world, the woman Jack most hated (yet secretly loved). She came back, of course, hobbled by chains (the jewellery of the damned), and with dark circles around her eyes that suggested illness, remorse and the great tradition of Feuillade's Irma Vep. The most promising thing about this plot turn ? and I say this cautiously, for some will be offended by its presence in an entertainment series was the prospect of torture.

And here we come to the most intriguing aspect of the second series, and the way it found fruitful interface with the real life going on in America as it played. Nina was established as a very hard case: she had been capable of that insolent look into the surveillance camera as she killed Teri in the twenty-fourth episode of the first run. It wasn't just that she had given up body and identity to 'infiltrate' Jack's bower. More than that, she had done every bit of factual back-tracking, information patching and telephoning Jack had wanted. She had behaved like a secretary!

So it wasn't difficult to imagine the ingenuity and venom (isn't it well-fed spite we see in Kiefer Sutherland remember his marine in A Few Good Men?) with which Jack might tighten the screws to get Nina to talk. Well, yes, you're right in thinking that network standards and practices wouldn't allow mere sexual revenge as a justification for on-camera torture; and, yes, I'll concede that it probably required Fritz Lang to see the precise angles of leverage, plus Luis Buuel to feel the last drop of humour. ("Beloved, let me lick up your blood!") But it did seem true to the Jack-Nina affair (and to modern American marriage) that a torturous and tortured relationship could set in, in the course of which Nina would disclose the location of the bomb as a proof that, yes, she still loved Jack. There would be an entire episode devoted to the torture and it would climax in love-making. Nina would be back on board, crippled now less by chains than by the wounds incurred in torture, and leaving us all in the old quandary does she really love him?

If you haven't seen much of 24, or even if you have, you may think this surmising is disgusting. I agree that's how close 24 came to being really good again. In fact, Jack hardly got his hands, much less his Cronenbergian surgical steel, on Nina. But the startling thing about 24 was how naggingly it explored the nature and clout of torture. Time and again, with the bomb in looming imminence, suspects were regarded as information-hiding vessels with soft skin that might be pierced. Well, why not? For there was a tough question lurking, one to torment any lawyer or policeman versed in the Constitution. Granted that a prisoner had (or might have) information concerning a primed nuclear weapon capable of wiping out 8 million people (even if only Los Angeles), would torture be in order?

I was present at several dinner-party conversations where this issue arose. And just as people are often on their best behaviour on such occasions, so most people ?? lawyers once assured me that, for God's sake, no, torture would not be justified. I asked again: "Suppose your wife and children or people you love happened to be in Los Angeles, or in the bomb's amber area, wouldn't you pull a few finger-nails to get the saving information?" Still, these stalwarts told me, gently, sadly, "No". Which may be a warning on going to law in America.

Meanwhile, with new powers and diligent vigour, the America of Bush, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft (all in the interest of saving intelligence) was rounding up and detaining people under the liberties of the Homeland Security legislation, so that even now, as you read, there are unnamed, uncharged people in American detention because they may have information on terrorist activities to come. And somehow, even after the way intelligence was bamboozled to spin the Iraq war into being, citizens are expected to believe that this detention is just a ploy to expose Americans in the secret service to Middle Eastern languages. That might have been more useful before 9/11, if only in tracking taped telephone conversations in which 'they' chatted about that Diehard day.

Aside: in other words, if the US is so structurally stupid (i.e., does not educate citizens in such things as foreign languages, for that may lead to impurities in the culture, or doubts), should we be surprised if it resorts to more brutal means?

I don't mean to overpraise the second series of 24. It was often sluggish, repetitive and hackneyed what would the idiot daughter Kim do next to put herself in jeopardy? Moreover, President David Palmer existed in a chilled isolation from the world that defied everything else television tells us about our leaders, whether in news coverage or The West Wing. It was as if that strange actor Dennis Haysbert had somehow becalmed the role. It's not just that he's a throwback to such 'white' blacks as Sidney Poitier; it's more that he might be studying for monastic life or higher chess. (You know why his wife is so frustrated.) So when he gets voted out of the presidency in the second series his great calm gravity seems fulfilled, not outraged.

Even so, in the season that saw the war in Iraq come to life, 24 was the only film/movie/television show occurring in the same country. It was a cockamamie serial, to be sure, but it understood some of the deep threats to what this country claims to be about. As you may have guessed, this writer is of the opinion that the gravest threats come not from without, from enemies and terrorists, but from within, from people capable of thinking up a word like Homeland, from people greedy to lead the United States and skilled enough to win the things we call elections.

I came to America first in the years 1973-5. The country then, thanks to its leadership and to the cultural terror that had risen to the top (that's what happens in a meritocracy, surely?), was in a bad state. To be brief, I'm referring to the events under Richard Nixon's leadership, from the manipulation of Vietnam to the steady undermining of the law at home. There were reasons to be afraid and the country was still torn with the anguish of people who had been in Vietnam. But the commentary possible in a country like the US was ongoing. Belatedly, the press and television had sunk journalistic teeth into the corpse of American idealism. And there were movies that, even if they didn't address these things directly, were filled with alarm and dismay. To make a brief list, think of the films of Alan Pakula, Chinatown (1974), the first two parts of The Godfather (1972/4), a lot of Altman, Shampoo (1975), Night Moves (1975), Taxi Driver (1976).

And there are more. You don't have to accept that these are all great films. My point in defending their quality is rather more to underline their gloomy ambition these were films that whispered, 'This is a dangerous place, and we are the danger.'

But in the prolonged season since 9/11/2001 we have had instead a demonstration from Hollywood that it would rather not know or hear about disquiet, much less touch it in its business of entertainment. It has been a time of chronic special effects (very like the super electronics that now makes us so militarily mighty) and of increasingly childlike 'characters' who can fly and do other tricks denied to real people. Some of these wonders break upon the shore as if they were miracles. In the stupendous first weekend of The Matrix: Reloaded distinguished newspapers cobbled together 'think' pieces on the 'philosophy' rumoured in the film. One reporter called me for a soundbite on its 'ideas'. I said I had found none. Having been there that first weekend, with two children and my wife in a packed theatre, I found watching the audience more instructive than watching the film. I anticipated the sensation would be very brief: you could feel awe and wonder being stifled, or quietly folded up and thrust in a back pocket. You could feel the air changing; you could have intuited that in the following weekends the attendance would fall off first by 60 per cent and then by more.

I don't mean to pick on The Matrix: Reloaded, which is pretty and sometimes fun. But as the greatest success of this current season (so far), and as a venture that was reckoned capable of taking out Titanic after one weekend, it's horribly characteristic of our nearly immediate disappointment. It reminded me of something in the second series of 24, when the bomb does explode, reassigned to the Mojave (some Americans think deserts are deserted, instead of underpopulated). The light show was well handled, with a Turneresque view from a passing aircraft. But then the bomb was over; it was a flash in the pan. I think that in America if a real bomb exploded there would still be a profound cultural shock a depression to counter Prozac? but on the show it had no impact. And that was so true to the show-business sensibility where nothing shocks or moves anyone any longer. The numbers peak, and then they subside. That is all.

So 24/2 was sometimes bold and often suggestive; and I watched it through, if only out of nostalgia, impatient in the weeks when it was bumped for American Idol. I value its sometime grasp of the real America's drift towards security-state insecurity. But just as television, it needed so much more. As split-screen storytelling, 24 can only go so far. Beyond that, the direction is anonymous. It's a medium that demands great producers (this may not be so different from American movies). If I'd been producing I'd have had guest directors and I'd have encouraged them to go to the extremes of their styles if they know them. I'd have had Antonioni or Angelopoulos just doing a silent survey of life in the Mojave desert, with the fade-out you know by now. Tarantino could have done the torture episode.

More than that, the show required commentary. It needed its own talk show, with real-life pundits and senators coming on to discuss President Palmer's situation. It needed a great dash of what Altman tried to do in Tanner, and what Welles was always after the organic confusion of fact and fiction. It needed to bleed over into the rest of television.

Go one step further: the commercials should have been written and directed by the show's talent, and they should have had the show's actors or characters. Thus you cut away from a car chase to have Kiefer Sutherland proposing this or that SUV. In the midst of telephonic deceit, Nina confides to the camera about the "love-affair confidentiality" of her latest Nokia. And so on.

You may say business wouldn't stand for that. But business only wants its ads seen and listened to, and this embedding would surely make attention more likely. In time the ads might have been used to forward the plot a little. And so the ghastly chaos of America now more ominous than anything under Nixon might have become a part of the show. And 24 might have been an event of dazzling, radical novelty, so dangerous and compelling that the war itself got bumped.

Someone should show it all in one day (Antonia Quirke had that idea for the ICA in London but there were print problems). And everyone in the audience has a cell phone so they can call home. Or wherever you'd call if the bomb flashes. But the doors are locked only as much food and weaponry as you can carry in. Give claustrophobia a chance. I told you we needed Buuel. It's The Exterminating Angel, with Nina presiding, waiting for Jack to sleep.

Perchance to dream. David Lynch does the last episode. But I haven't spoiled your ending.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012