By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 24, 2006
Despite the unabated threat of terrorism and the arrival of another hurricane season, the nation's top Homeland Security official had time yesterday to publicly ponder this question:
Is the Fox series "24" like real counterterrorism efforts, or is it, you know, just a make-believe suspense show with actors and product-placement props and characters running around breathlessly yelling at each other, "Dammit, there's no time!"
Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the agents on "24's" Counter-Terrorism Unit, like the 180,000 people under his supervision, have to make difficult choices while faced with "imperfect information" and a series of "unpalatable alternatives."
On the other hand, Chertoff pointed out, real counterterrorism situations don't get resolved within 24 hours, nor does Homeland Security have a cool operations center in Los Angeles packed with technology that can do just about anything without anyone ever having to call IT.
Chertoff was the featured speaker at a morning forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that normally sticks to real, if less sexy, topics such as tax policy and entitlement programs. Heritage's Phillip Truluck conceded in introductory remarks that the event at the Ronald Reagan Building was "very unusual" for the conservative organization.
He was probably right, considering that the panel discussion after Chertoff's remarks included two national security scholars, "24" co-creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, and the actors who play the show's Nixonish president (Gregory Itzin) and CTU agents Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) and Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub).
The discussion was hosted by Rush Limbaugh, who breached the art-vs.-life divide early by planting a big kiss on the woman he introduced to a knowing audience simply as "Chloe."
All this, plus special guest Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who sat in the front row of the packed amphitheater.
Among other things, Limbaugh asked the show's creators and stars whether they're snubbed by "Hollywood liberals" for making a "pro-America show." The consensus response: Well, no, and they wouldn't put it like that. As Surnow pointed out, the show is embraced by people of all political persuasions, with a fan base that ranges from Barbra Streisand to Donald Rumsfeld.
The title of the session was " '24' and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does it Matter?" Everyone seemed to agree that it mattered, somehow, which is probably the answer Fox's promotions department was hoping to hear. No less than Chertoff himself praised the character and tenacity of "24's" fictitious uber-agent, Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland), and his CTU colleagues, saying such perseverance will help America defeat terrorism.
Chertoff, of course, failed to mention a few other key departures from reality, such as that "24's" president, Charles Logan, last season was A) a devious madman who authorized a plan to supply a Russian terrorist group with nerve gas, and B) had several people killed, including his predecessor, and C) was the tool of a shadowy organization whose leader wears one of those funny telephone earpieces.
Well, said Bernard afterward, it's silly to demand too much reality from a network TV series. "It's a show, " said the soul-patched actor, whose character last season was apparently killed (no next-season plot spoilers here). "It could be completely realistic or it could be entertainment. Which do you want?"
For the record: Bernard seems significantly shorter than he appears on "24," while Rajskub seems taller and much less frowny. Itzin, meanwhile, has softened President Logan's unctuousness by growing a beard.
The affable Cochran seemed to recognize the inherent banality of the "Is it real?" question. "It isn't realistic in any documentary or literal sense," he said after the panel discussion. "What [the show] tries to do is capture an emotional and psychological reality of living in a world where terrorism is a threat. If you're looking to us for realistic advice on how to fight terrorism, we're all in real trouble."
As for Rajskub, the morning's activities seemed to leave her a bit dazed. "I don't really know what's going on here," she said. "I said it on the panel, and I meant it, that acting allows you to stay inside a fantasy world. But this is very bizarre. I don't know what to think. I'm really beside myself and speechless to be here."
Bernard and Rajskub can relate, however, to the underlying theme of the discussion, and recognize how porous the line between art and life can be. Bernard said that people ask him for advice on how to fight terrorism "all the time." And Rajskub, whose character is a computer whiz, said it's flattering that people think she's actually some kind of technical genius: "When I go into the Apple store, I try to use [the image] to get free stuff."
She smiled. Chloe wouldn't do that.
Then Bernard and Rajskub bid a hasty farewell. The whole group of counterterrorism experts, actual and synthetic, was headed to the White House for lunch. For real.