Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by Jon Cassar
In which Jack saves children in a war-torn nation of Africa during the beginning stages of a coup, on the day of a new US president's inaugeration...
Status Report - Final Analysis
Previous seasons of "24" have received prequels, but they've always been abbreviated affairs with tons of product placement relegated to the DVD sets. Just the fact that they were made at all was something notable. Had it not been for the writers' strike and the postponement of the seventh season, this extended prequel would not exist. The question is this: will these two hours feel justified and crucial once the seventh season begins, or will it feel as extraneous as those other prequels have?
Two things immediately get in the way of true Jack Bauer Power Hour greatness. The first is probably the most obvious: the incredibly blatant product placement throughout the entire production. Highlighting Sprint, Cisco, and other sponsors has always been part of the "24" genetic code. Name-dropping specific services and products from those sponsors, on the other hand, represents a new and glaringly invasive approach. (I'm not sure there are adverbs yet created to convey my annoyance.)
The second problem is, predictably, Howard Gordon. Over the course of the series, Gordon has been perhaps the greatest impediment to the quality of the series as a whole. Gordon has championed the process of making each season up as they go along since day one, and still defends that practice as creatively prudent when the end results have often undermined the strengths of the premise. Gordon also loves to play to the cheap seats, and this entire production is dripping with earnest sentimentality and cookie-cutter intrigue.
That said, Gordon (possibly with the help of the rest of the writing staff) managed to incorporate an interesting bit of character exploration in the midst of the cloying approach to African Human Rights Violations 101. I doubt it was the most obvious parallel in the world, but it was unexpected enough to catch my attention.
First, a quick recap on the story: Jack Bauer has been ducking a subpoena to appear before a Senate subcommittee related to various questionable actions taken by CTU, many of which came at his hand. His travels have taken him to a school in a fictional African nation where a corrupt general, supported by the outgoing US president and his shady ally (played by Jon Voight), is about to stage a coup. The general's methods include the press-gang recruitment of child soldiers, which puts the school in the crosshairs. Cue the return of heroic Jack Bauer, who does everything to save the children at the school, which ultimately means Jack must acknowledge that annoying subpoena.
I've never been a huge fan of mining real-world tragedy for easy sentiment. It's too often a case of borrowing the emotions associated with those atrocities than making the public aware of them (think "Blood Diamonds" or "Rambo"). The treatment of the child soldiers is used to tell us how horrible the enemy is and how heroic Jack is for saving the children from that fate. It's a means to an end. To put it another way: the same exact plot would have worked without the child soldier element, which makes it seem like a calculated addition.
I was a little more impressed by the Washington machinations, if only because they usually give scope to whatever insanity Jack is trying to manage. (I promise, it wasn't just because of those glamour shots of Carly Pope!). While Jack's journey in the film was relatively self-contained, the Washington material was clearly background information to be referenced in the seventh season proper. Those scenes provided a nice primer on the politics at play: the weak outgoing Democratic president covering up his implication in the African crisis, the Republican successor and her family preparing to deal with the fallout.
By far, the highlight of the film was Jack Bauer's internal crisis. The end of the sixth season, besides capping off one hell of a mess, left Jack at his lowest possible point. My hope was that the writers would approach the series as a three-act whole: the first three seasons being the introduction, the next three seasons taking everything away from Jack and stripping him down psychologically and emotionally, and the rest of the series building him back up to either a new man or a fitting sacrificial moment.
In that respect, something needed to push him out of his internal darkness and back into the light. Jack has understood, on some level, the questionable nature of his actions and choices, but he's believed them to be in service to the greater good. It's quite possible that the past several years have driven him to question those beliefs. The Senate subcommittee is just the external expression of internal doubt.
At one point during the story, Jack encounters a UN inspector who avoids acknowledgement of the realities of the situation in the country and any responsibility for making amends. Instead of confronting an uncomfortable truth, he chooses to hide and run. Jack pointedly derides the man's cowardice. (It doesn't help that it feels like the writer is bashing the French through barely-veiled "fiction".)
Yet the irony is rather clear. Jack spits venom at the UN inspector, but what is he doing? He's hiding from the Senate subcommittee by running to whatever remote hole in the ground he can find. He doesn't want to face down the criticism and the accusations. He doesn't want to defend himself. His reasons, when stated, are classic Jack Bauer; he doesn't feel the need to apologize for doing his job. But is that the real reason? Or has he lost faith not only in the government and country he protects, but the rightness of his actions?
By the end of the story, Jack still doesn’t see the validity of the subcommittee or the subpoena, but he's given a clear moral choice: do what he feels is best for him, or what he feels is best for others. Making those "others" a bunch of children in peril makes the case more obvious to the audience. Jack makes what is, in the end, a fairly minor sacrifice to ensure that those children gain their freedom.
That's why this film was titled "Redemption". It's not necessarily that his past actions demand redemption (though, on a larger scale, he must reconcile the price he's paid and exacted over the years). It's redemption for the choice he's made to hide and avoid the questions from others that haunt him within. After all that he's done, both heroic and deplorable, it's unworthy of him to turn his back on the consequences, however unfair they might seem in the balance.
Jack Bauer has watched everything he knows fall apart around him. He is a man without a clear purpose. In the wake of this small, heroic action, the question is asked: will he fall even further, or will he pave the way to a new and better means of protecting freedom? One can only hope that the writers, in the seventh season, will be willing to tackle that question.
Overall, this episode was a capable preface to the seventh season, but I doubt it will meet the lofty expectations of the fans who have been waiting for Jack Bauer's return. It may be that the relative quality and relevance of this prequel will only be evident once the seventh season begins.
Final Rating: 7/10
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