By Sweeting, Adam
The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
History is littered with disasters, but Hollywood can fix them. Ignominious defeat in Vietnam? We'll send Rambo back to do the job properly. Want to kick the Brits for the War of Independence? We'll make The Patriot, and turn the British army into the 18th-century Waffen SS. But while rewriting history may be all very well 200 - or even 30 - years after the event, turning current events into screen drama is a much tougher call. It has taken five years for the 9/11 attacks to reach the cinema, via Paul Greengrass's United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, but some believe that's still indecently quick, even if the movies dutifully honoured the American dead and have been mostly well received. Yet none of the same sensitivities appear to have been bruised by the way the TV networks have been running their own fantasy commentary on the War on Terror almost since the day of the al-Qa'ida attacks.
As the international situation has lurched from crisis to disaster since 9/11, the networks have been pumping out reams of programming seething with terror plots, covert agencies and geopolitical paranoia, from the BBC's Spooks to US-made productions including NCIS, Alias and 24. The background to the World Trade Centre attacks was explored (none too accurately, according to many critics) in The Path To 9/11. Further recent American arrivals on British TV have included Sleeper Cell (in which a Muslim FBI agent infiltrates a terrorist conspiracy), The Unit (depicting the exploits of a top secret Special Forces team), and E-Ring, which takes its name from "the outer and most important ring" of the Pentagon where critical military operations are planned. The Grid, a lumbering mini-series about the complexities of co-ordinating transatlantic counter-terrorism, was a co-production between the BBC and TNT. Its successor is BBC1's The State Within, a bafflingly complex six-parter bristling with terrorist outrages and political conspiracies. For the TV studios, terrorism is big business. But should it be, and is it good for us?
24 was the Big Bang moment in the current boom in telly-terror because of its revolutionary real-time format, its claustrophobic obsession with conspiracy and betrayal within the American political and security establishments, and, most conspicuously, for its timing. The first series began airing on the American Fox network in November 2001, only two months after 9/11, though obviously the planning and writing had begun long before. Now gearing up for a sixth season for the start of next year and with a spin-off feature film in prospect, 24 rescued Kiefer Sutherland from a twilight zone of bad movies and obscure TV guest appearances, and possibly triggered the trend towards making television a respectable home for movie actors.
Equally significantly, 24 set a tone President Bush might admire - terrorism is the deadliest enemy, and no weapon will be left unused in combatting it. Its makers have made no bones about their hawkish sympathies, with co - c re a to r Joel Surnow happy to admit to 24' s conservative leanings. When the Council of American-Islamic Relations became alarmed by what it considered a negative portrayal of Muslims, Kiefer Sutherland responded by appearing in placatory public service announcements, but Surnow has refused to blunt the show's ruthless edge.
"For it to have any believability and resonance, we had to deal with the world we're living in, and the terrorists are the ji- hadists," he says. "It wouldn't feel realistic if you did anything else."
For Sutherland's Jack Bauer and his fellow agents, there's never any question of civil liberties or other liberal wimpishness taking precedence over the urgency of their mission. When Bauer's Counter Terrorist Unit planned to torture suspects to extract details about a threatened nuclear attack on the US, the chief terrorist called an outf it called Amnesty Global (having presciently stored their number as a speed-dial on his phone), and, to Bauer's disgust, they wheeled out a human rights lawyer to stall the ongoing atrocities. …