TV UK, 8 Marc

24 is hopelessly pre-9/11 - but so what?

Dolan Cummings

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24 was already out of date by the time it hit US screens in late 2001.

Sure, it opens in Kuala Lumpur, but the international terrorists are not fanatical anti-Western Islamicists, but homegrown race-nuts with allies in the CIA itself, and their target is not Western civilisation, but a black presidential contender. Now screening on BBC 2 (Sundays at 10pm) 24 is hopelessly pre-9/11.

Having said that, 24 is pretty damn exciting, and if it misses the pulse of contemporary politics, that allows us to focus fully on the drama as a drama. Each one-hour episode covers one hour in the day of the California presidential primary, beginning with the news that the assassination attempt is afoot, and then weaving in subplots that might well turn out to be not-so-sub. The hero Jack Bauer is a CIA man played by Kiefer Sutherland, who is given 24 hours to get on top of the conspiracy and deal with any CIA involvement.

The real time thing works superbly to build suspense, with occasional split-screen montages teasing us with the possibility that the conspiracy is connected to Jack’s daughter’s increasingly bad night out, with the black presidential candidate’s mysterious past, or with the awkward sexual politics in Jack’s own office. Unusually for an American drama, there is not much clever dialogue, but there isn’t time for that to matter. 24 is all action and adventure, magnificently done.

Speaking of which, BBC Four’s first heavyweight documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger (Monday 4) catalogued the achievements of the man many would like to be the first American tried for war crimes. As unlikely as that may be, Kissinger’s bid is impressive. The film focused on his part in the Vietnam War, and in particular America’s devastating bombing of neutral Cambodia, which paved the way for the Khmer Rouge. (Of course, that kind of ‘paved the way’ argument is morally tenuous, but if you don’t like it, just run with the carpet bombing.)

Other highlights included Kissinger giving the green light (as well as the hardware and implicit military backing) for Indonesia’s bloody invasion of East Timor in 1975, and backing (or possibly orchestrating) the coup against Allende’s government in Chile on 11 September 1973, and the installation of the Pinochet regime.

Kissinger, appearing in various clips, is largely unrepentant, arguing that moral standards cannot be applied to states (or those, like he and Jack Bauer, who act on their behalf) as they are to individuals. Christopher Hitchens, who was a frequent contributor to the programme, insists on a distinction between unsavoury realpolitik and actual crimes, with Kissinger guilty of both. Hence the talk of a war crimes trial. But Kissinger is right in the sense that you can’t take the politics out of all this.

The programme ended by suggesting Kissinger must have trouble sleeping at night. I doubt it. He is a convinced reactionary, for whom nothing should be allowed to threaten the American national interest. The case against him would be an interesting way into a fuller investigation of how we decide what is and what isn’t a war crime, but that’s a whole other documentary.

Who would have thought of Lord Nelson as a war criminal? One contributor to Nelson’s Trafalgar (Channel 4, Tuesday at 9pm) pointed out that wherever Nelson went, large numbers of people died. This seems a little unfair, given the circumstances. Much more damning was the story about Nelson’s lovenest in Naples, where he and Emma Hamilton joined their tyrannical hosts in bloody retribution against republican insurgents in 1799.

Apart from that, the programme combined biography and military history to pleasant enough effect, cataloguing Nelson’s battles and his corresponding injuries, and making the case for his genius. Nelson’s Trafalgar was part of a series on the War Against Napoleon, harking back to the days when wars were wars.

Next week is the Duke of Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo. More-out-of-date action, but none the less dramatic for that.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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