VIEW THIS PAGE Sitting in the lobby after the interview, I look up and see that a man has stopped on his way out. “Thank you,” he’s saying to me, “thanks for coming by, it was good to meet you.” I wonder what this stranger is talking about. Then I realize who it is. Kiefer Sutherland looks in real life so commonplace, so unlike a movie star, that it’s possible not to recognize him only minutes after spending an hour in a hotel suite with him.
This must be a testament to his acting skills, because the face of Special Agent Jack Bauer is indelibly recognizable to millions of 24 fans all over the world. Like James Bond or Jason Bourne, Bauer has become less a role than a global phenomenon, a hero to everyone from Bill Clinton to Karl Rove — his popularity as inexhaustible as his ability to save America from ever more audacious terror plots. The drama series set in a fictional counter-terrorism unit screens on 236 channels to 100 million viewers worldwide. It has won Sutherland an Emmy nomination for every one of its six series to date, and made him the most highly paid television actor in the world.
The show was devised a year before 9/11, but the uncanny prescience of its plotlines foretold the Bush administration’s war on terror. “Whatever it takes” is Bauer’s gravelly motto — and what it takes on 24 can be highly violent, illegal and frequently involve torture. Why so many fans are in love with a man who tortures people is perhaps a disturbing puzzle — but not as troubling as the question that has dogged Sutherland and 24’s creators for the last 18 months. Is admiration for Bauer confined to the escapism of make-believe — or has it had an impact on public opinion and military strategy in the real world?
“What Jack Bauer does is all in the context of a television show,” Sutherland begins, very slowly and deliberately, in the grainy register of a heavy smoker. He looks unexpectedly slight, and a little tired, but his engagement is direct and considered. “I always have to remind people of this. We’re making a television program. We’re utilizing certain devices for drama. And it’s good drama. And I love this drama! As an actor I have had an absolute blast doing it. You sit in a room and put a gun to a guy’s knee and say, ‘Tell me!’ Oh, you feel so amazing after that!
“But I know it’s not real. The other actor certainly knows it’s not real. And up until a year ago, everybody else knew it wasn’t real.”
In 2007 it was reported that a delegation from West Point had visited the set of 24 to tell producers that their portrayal of torture was seriously affecting military training. Cadets love 24, a general explained, “and they say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?’” A former US army interrogator told them he’d seen soldiers in Iraq “watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.” Their claims were corroborated by a book last year by Philippe Sands about interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay, in which military officials cited 24 as an inspiration for early “brainstorming meetings.” Bauer, one officer admitted, “gave people a lot of ideas.”
Sutherland is a Democrat and says he longs for the day when Bauer’s interrogation techniques “go back to being a figment of someone’s imagination, as opposed to mirroring things that are in fact happening across the world.” Authenticity, however, has always been central to 24’s appeal. Just a week before US President Barack Obama announced that he was going to close Guantanamo Bay, the latest series opened with the counter-terrorism unit disbanded, and Bauer facing indictment for torture. “The world is changing,” Sutherland smiles, “and season seven deals with that. It deals with Jack Bauer in a world that’s changing where he is obsolete.”