They Don’t Know Jack

Twenty-four is the Fox drama where one day a year Jack Bauer takes the law into his own hands and saves the republic. It’s always a day when the president happens to be visiting Los Angeles, and maybe the show’s real message is that the president should stay back east.

But anyway, this season, 24’s fifth, the pundits are descending on the show to assign it its place in the American gestalt. The reason why is clear: the premiere last month coincided with a moment when George W. Bush was telling every friendly audience he could find that a president’s gotta do what he’s gotta do and besides, if he does it it’s legal. And here’s Jack Bauer on TV once a week grimly doing the doing. Whose side is 24 on? Liberals watch the show by the millions–should they denounce it? Is 24 happy hour for crypto-fascists?

The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin had never seen 24 at all until recently, when she buckled down and watched every one of the 102 episodes that’ve aired since 2001. This kind of marathon does most shows no favor. You spot its tics. “I tended to notice annoying repetitions,” Franklin wrote this month. “It seemed to me that Jack whispered ‘We’ll get through this’ to his daughter, Kim . . . at least five times in every episode she was in.” But Franklin was impressed. She was affected–as are we all–by the “cloud of existential doom” that hangs over Jack Bauer and by the way Bauer and his comrades at the LA Counter Terrorist Unit “find themselves perpetually at the crossroads of urgency and ethics.”

In the New York Times on February 5, Sarah Vowell hailed 24 as a liberal’s guilty pleasure. Describing a recent scene in which Bauer, interrogating a treacherous aide to the president about missing canisters of nerve gas while time was, as time always is on 24, fast running out, points a knife at his face and tells him that if he doesn’t talk, “the first thing I’m going to do is, I’m going to take out your right eye. I’ll move over and take out your left.” Vowell admits, “Sitting on my couch, under the watchful stare of no fewer than six busts of Lincoln, while wearing a sweatshirt given to volunteers at a children’s tutoring center, as Bauer’s knife was poised to break the man’s skin, what I was thinking was: Do it.”

She went on to conclude, “Unconstitutional fantasies are normal (I hope), and on TV dramas they can be entertaining and cathartic. Let’s just keep them off the TV news.”

Vowell should scratch a little deeper: 24 is not your garden-variety unconstitutional fantasy. Jack Bauer is one of the greatest TV characters because he does what needs to be done with deep regard for what the Constitution–not to mention his conscience–has to say about his behavior. Unlike, just perhaps, some present leaders of our government, Bauer knows what needs to be done for what it is–evil. He spies and abducts and tortures and then gives himself up. Let me finish this one mission, he’s always dolefully telling the CTU brass, and then you can take me in. We don’t see Bauer praying, but then we don’t see him taking a leak either. Those are things that must happen during commercials, and if his prostate’s in no better shape than his soul the peeing is agony. Bauer knows he’s in bad with God. He knows that doing the wrong thing for the right reason doesn’t make it the right thing–which separates him by leaps and bounds from the theologians running the country.

Wussy secular humanists love Bauer because he’s a moral relativist. Cowboys like him because he’s an absolutist. He gets that some things are black-and-white and some things are gray. He knows the only way to distinguish the greater evil from the lesser is to measure them both against the yardstick of categorical evil, the yardstick the great religions keep in their top drawer. In a crisis Bauer is pretty quick to identify the lesser evil, but I don’t think he’s ever 100 percent sure, and as the lesser evil is still evil, it’s pretty clear to him he’s going to hell.

What’s not to like about Jack Bauer? He’s a great example to us all because he doesn’t lie about the impossible nature of his choices. Fools and demagogues do. Let’s consider briefly one of the few personal crises I don’t believe Bauer has faced in his five seasons on the air: what if Kim had gotten knocked up? The abortion debate has torn the country apart because neither side is honest about the choices. The debate is actually between the half of the country that thinks abortion is evil and the half that thinks it’s a necessary evil. That’s a divide that could be straddled. Jack Bauer could straddle it. Again, abortion must be one of those things that he talks about, if at all, only during the commercials. But in the early seasons, when Kim was a teenager, if his cell phone had rung and she’d told him in a quavering voice, “Daddy, I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do,” I have no doubt what he’d have said.

He’d have whispered, “The terrorists are about to spot me hiding here and then I’m going to have to kill some people so this is a bad time to talk. But I want you to know I love you. We’ll get through this.” Whatever he thought, whatever she decided, she’d need his strength and not his sanctimony, and he’d be there for her. And it would occur to Jack Bauer that whichever way things played out, at some point down the road he’d be as sad as could be.

The Movie Wraps Before the Story Ends

The curious thing about Citizen Black, a documentary on Conrad Black that makes its U.S. premiere on cable’s Sundance Channel at 8 PM this Monday, is that it totally ignores Chicago. The movie was finished two years ago, when Black’s media empire was beginning to splinter around him but before it collapsed. He’s since been indicted here in Chicago on charges of fraud, racketeering, money laundering, and obstruction of justice and he faces trial next year in our federal court. His longtime business partner, David Radler, who ran the Sun-Times and the rest of Hollinger International’s Chicago Group, has pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed to testify against him.

Citizen Black offers us Black–aka Lord Black of Crossharbour–during somewhat happier times in other places. Filmmaker Debbie Melnyk chases him around trying to get him to agree to a formal interview, and we see enough of the banter between them to understand that Black can be a pretty witty and charming guy.

Melnyk and cowriter Rick Caine focus on Black’s Canadian and British operations. He’s a native Canadian, and London–where he owned the Telegraph–was the city he longed to matter in. It seems that Chicago, despite the Chicago Group, was barely on his radar.

“The truth be told,” Caine says, “we had an internal conflict about it. I’m American. Debbie’s Canadian.” He wanted Chicago in the movie; she didn’t see the point. “There’s a Chicago section that runs about 12 minutes long that’ll end up on DVD,” he says, “but that’s not the version on the Sundance Channel.”

The absence of the Chicago section doesn’t mean there’s nothing in the film to interest a viewer here, but you need to pay close attention. There’s a key scene late in the film at the 2003 Hollinger International shareholders meeting in New York. (Melnyk sneaked in with a camera.) By this point Black, still in control of Hollinger, is under siege, and he’s being grilled about deals in which he and Radler seemed to make out a lot better than the company.

Black replies haughtily, “The chairman of the audit committee, Governor Thompson, has said every one of these transactions was demonstrably in the company’s interest and was the best arrangement available. We believe all this can be documented to the satisfaction of the most exacting examination.”

This response foreshadows Black’s probable defense at trial: Radler and Jim Thompson were minding the store while Black, putting his trust in their judgment, paid no attention. His mind was on other matters, such as the seat he coveted in Britain’s House of Lords (we see him in all his lordly plumage) and the biography of FDR he was writing (Melnyk keeps cornering him at the book shows where he flogs the tome). He could submit Citizen Black as evidence that he never gave Chicago a thought.

News Bites

There will be no update of Citizen Black. Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk have moved on to their next subject: Michael Moore, who they started following around before Fahrenheit 9/11 came out. “Michael’s funner,” says Caine. “But in some weird way, Conrad Black was much nicer to us.”

I wouldn’t blame newspapers with reporters in the Middle East for not wanting to add to the danger they’re in, but the explanations they’ve given for withholding the Danish cartoons of Muhammad have a tinny ring to them. American papers dismissed the cartoons they wouldn’t publish as witless and juvenile. The Tribune’s outgoing public editor, Don Wycliff, called them “crude” and then the editorial page called them “crude.” Wycliff drew an analogy to an “expletive-laced diatribe against Islam,” and then deputy managing editor James Warren went on CNN’s Reliable Sources and said, “If, in fact, this had been an expletive-filled torrent diatribe against Islam and Muhammad, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

But it wasn’t. The charge was blasphemy, which is very different from profanity, and as the protest became vast and violent it seemed peculiar of the papers to hide the drawings that had incited it.

“You can see them around the world on the Internet,” host Howard Kurtz observed during the Reliable Sources discussion. Papers that don’t mind ceding more and more of their purpose to the Internet can console themselves with that thought. But few papers seized the obvious middle ground–telling their readers where to look online or linking to them. Try if you haven’t seen the cartoons yet and want to, and then I recommend, a showcase for editorial cartoonists. Poke around there and you’ll find a wide selection of American cartoons commenting on the Danish cartoons plus a vigorous debate by American cartoonists (look in particular at host Daryl Cagle’s own blog) on the way the nation’s papers handled the story.

One of last year’s best-reviewed books, Courtroom 302 by Reader staff writer Steve Bogira, has just been published in paperback. HBO has bought rights to Bogira’s book and plans to develop a miniseries based on it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anthony Mandler–Fox.