You're rarely more than a few frames away from graphic violence in tonight's ABC News Close-Up report on modern mercenaries, "Soldiers of the Twilight," at 10 on Channel 7. Scenes of violence are used as decorative teases, sprinkled around like any other form of cheap glitz. and doled out regularly to keep viewers hooked on what is essentially carnival journalism.
Not enough the hour should be liberally peppered with burning bodies, rotting corpses, firing guns, explosions, verbal descriptions of killings, and a shot of human skeletons being crushed under the wheels of a jeep. Oh, it's all sure-fire Grand Guignol bully-pulp, but the producers don't want to take any chances.
So midway through the report host and co-writer Marshall Frady (he gets star billing in the opening credits) introduces the remembrances of an accused saboteur in Nicaragua with the note that "We illustrate his story with scenes from a film recreating events that are similar to those he describes."
Scenes from a film recreating events that are similar to those he describes? They've got enough actual atrocity footage as it is to do their own version of "Mondo Cane." This is Mondo Merco, and the recreated events include, in a quick flash cut, an ABC News close-up of the suspected saboteur having electric charges applied to his testicles. There's no word on which poor schnook had to serve as the stunt man for that, but as stunts go, it's a new low.
The program is forever meandering off of one grisly sight or another but is ostensibly built around the comings and goings and killings of four mercenaries, the most intriguing of whom is Maj. Mike Williams, an American gun for hire. "'The Wild Bunch' is my favorite film," he says, and he unashamedly summarizes his life as one of "riding horses and killing Marxists and having a good old time."
Another mercenary, identified only as "Rebel," sounds closer to the Deep End. Killing and fighting makes one "feel like a man," he says, in between rock 'n' roll recording sessions and war games with his toy soldiers.
What these men say has the potential to be chilling and revealing, but producer-director Malcolm Clarke insists on a visual binge. To illustrate the fact that four mercenaries were executed in one country, he plasters their pictures on the screen and then, at the sound of a gunshot, each one turns into a negative. It's so cute you want to leave the room.
In another scene a man defuses a bomb in front of a residence. Tense, yes, but not sexy enough for Clarke. So shots of the aftermath of another bomb blast are intercut with the defusing. Viewers do get so restless when they don't see dead or burning bodies on the screen.
Other techniques used to tickle and titillate include slow motion, portentous (and pretentious) music, and numerous editing gimmicks (this documentary really was produced in the special-effects lab and not in the camera). Naturally bows are taken every now and then for the alleged resourcefulness and derring-do of ABC News, and the producers seem to have become what they beheld: They emphasize and glamorize their own espionage tactics in gathering material ("Joe's partner is 'Roy.' Both men told us not to use their real names").
But for all that, the sleuths never did find out how much these mercenaries are paid nor, more importantly, who pays them. Among other customers, "American business interests" are referred to, but not a single company is identified.
It all plays like something out of Male Tales magazine or an overly illustrated session of Big Bar Talk. How these mercenaries relate to the American macho syndrome or to global politics in general isn't analyzed. But analysis is anathema to the panderer, and "Soldiers of the Twilight" looks more like a gaudy and gory recruitment poster than civilized reportage.