Back in 2002, during the lead-up to the premiere of the great, short-lived Robbery Homicide Division, executive producer Michael Mann, who had made the groundbreaking decision to shoot the program on digital film, was asked if he was going to take advantage of the new widescreen TVs that were starting to become popular. The implication in the question was this: Would the director of Manhunter and Heat bring his trademark “cinematic” style to TV? He said no, that, like his Miami Vice and Crime Story, he designed the show to fit the square box of TV.
This very astute awareness of the difference between TV and movies has always stayed with me, and it popped into my head while watching last night’s hour of 24. I admit to bristling at the often-parroted line “TV is better than movies,” or “TV has become just as cinematic as movies.” Besides being an empty statement meant to validate television’s maturation over the last 15 years, it’s also pretty ill-informed. Most episodic television is intimate, with a shelf life of a week. Movies are larger than life, they’re meant to overwhelm us with multiple emotional responses at once. The visual language of the storytelling is very similar, but our responses are different. Saying television is more satisfying than movies misses the point of their intents. It’d be like comparing the album recording to a live recording, or reading the book versus going to an author’s reading. Same words, different music.
Case in point is the extended drone/car chase that occurred late in the hour. Simone, having survived the hit-and-run accident at the end of last week’s hour, is in critical condition at the hospital. Jack and Kate track her down and attempt to question her. Margot has figured out Simone is in the hands of the authorities and is on the verge of turning her in. She orders her son to send the drone they have under their control over to the hospital and blow it up in order to prevent Simone from talking. Jack and Kate manage to evacuate a good portion of the hospital (amazingly, in less than nine minutes) before Margot strikes. Scanning to see if they hit their target, Margot sees Simone is still alive. What ensues is a high-speed chase, with Jack weaving in and out of traffic as the drone tries to hit them.
TV doesn’t lend itself to car chases the way movies do. The long, fluid takes of, say, Bullitt or The French Connection or To Live and Die in L.A. or Death Proof create a terrifically sustained sense of motion. (The last great chase sequence I saw was the reappearance of Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. The speed of the vehicles racing through the parking structure created an almost vertiginous sense of motion, especially on an Imax screen.) On TV, car chases are usually edited into pieces in an attempt to create motion and suspense. Sometimes it works, but we’re almost always aware that the fluidity of a high-speed chase is being augmented by editing. The drone/car chase is a textbook example of this. Whatever tension the sequence generates is created because of the previous six hours of character development, not action-movie kinetics. The twist of having Jack trying to outrun a drone is a good one, but the imagery is not as captivating as we imagine it should be. (Both Patriot Games and The Bourne Legacy had brief satellite/drone imagery that was far more compelling. Legacy’s one good sequence was a chilling demonstration of how accurate a drone can be.) Watching this smash-and-crash chase sequence, I was reminded of the frenetic car chase in Taken 2 or something like one of the Transporter movies. Then it occurred to me: TV isn’t better than movies. Movies are looking more and more like TV.
The rest of the hour was fairly solid, as decisions are starting to get made. The episode belonged to William Devane, as President Heller was forced to step up and act presidential. The showdown between Heller and Prime Minister Davies gave both Devane and Stephen Fry a good sparring showcase. Discovering that Davies ordered an MI-5 team to track Jack, Heller barks, “I explicitly asked you to let Jack Bauer handle this alone!” The showdown ends with Davies confronting Heller about his medical condition, and Heller being forced to acknowledge his arrogance in thinking he can still be president without anyone second-guessing him.
This led to a final scene of real power as Heller places a phone call to Margot. Surprised to be hearing from him, she is suspicious of his motives. She tries to get tough and wants to know if he’s trying to stall for extra time, but he remains calm. Devane never raises his voice. He draws us in as we realize he’s prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the people. He asks Margot for assurances that if he surrenders to her, she will not harm anyone else. She says yes, and asks for his decision. Devane’s final line reading of “As you suggested, I’ve made my decision,” has a powerful combination of sadness and just the right trace of defiance. It’s the kind of intimate moment that TV can deliver beautifully.
Odds & Ends
- In the least surprising development in the history of 24, Adrian Cross is revealed to be Navarro’s handler. He did claim to be a middleman, which means the writers gave themselves an “out” in case they want to redeem him. Who could Cross be working for? I’m going with the Russians.
- Speaking of the Russians, the way Tate Donovan’s Boudreau has become almost sympathetic is impressive. Donovan had a great Donovan-ish moment when he told the head Russian, “Look, it’s pointless to try to intimidate me.”
- The scene where Jack broke out his interrogation techniques on Simone was given a neat twist by the fallout of that scene. Kate is disturbed by Jack’s methods. He tells her, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I just hate these people for thinking there could be anything to justify what they’re doing.” I love it when 24 finds ways to critique its own bloodlust.