Two documentaries last night threw light on America's bizarre relationship with firearms. "An American Firefight", this week's edition of Timewatch (BBC2), looked back at the American experience in Mogadishu in 1993 when a humanitarian mission, attempting to get food past struggling warlords to the starving people who needed it, turned into a bloody gunfight. Eighteen American soldiers and as many as 350 Somalis were killed following an ambush set up by the outlawed General Aidid.
William Cran's film supplied all the expected images: pathetic Africans, eyes bulging from fleshless faces; skinny black gunfighters waving machine- guns bigger than themselves; square-jawed US troops, bristling with hardware and confidence, out to bring order to the world. But, bit by bit, he chipped away at the stereotypes. Perhaps the most unexpected thing was the anxious decency of the Rangers interviewed. The thinking behind the American operation - codenamed, with leaden irony, "Restore Hope" - may have been muddled and inept, but the soldiers on the ground seem to have had a simple faith that their duty was to help people and serve some sort of justice. The odd gung-ho statement (one soldier spoke of "a total sense of power being in a helicopter over that city") was undermined by self-consciousness and apology ("I mean, I don't like to come across like that"). Also, the only moment of overt racism, when a GI talked about retrieving fallen comrades - "It's one thing to die in battle, it's another to be defaced and mutilated by savages" - was confused by the fact that he was also the only black American we heard from.
Cran allowed these men a kind of heroism (you could even find Homeric resonances in the shot of an American corpse being dragged half-naked through Mogadishu's streets), and this was surely their due. But the force of the film was to question the value of heroism and to leave the viewer with an unanswerable question: which is better - inept, courageous goodwill of the sort we saw here, or the inaction and apathy which was Mogadishu's legacy to Rwanda and Bosnia?
Fewer guns, but just as many unanswerables, in the first of two Cutting Edge films (Channel 4) about the trial in Florida of Helen Cummings, an English nurse who, on St Valentine's Day this year, shot her husband, Tyler. There is no question that she did it - the film opened with Mrs Cummings' panicked, uncomprehending call to the police ("What did you do, honey?" asks the operator. "I can't say it. You know what I did."). But does she deserve to go to prison?
Meredith Chambers's film didn't leave much room for ambiguity. Mrs Cummings is apparently a pleasant, straightforward woman, with a young son and another child on the way. Tyler, on the other hand, was a 300lb gun-obsessive who videoed himself cheating on her in the marital bed. But sympathy was numbed by the sheer weight of the legal technicalities loaded on to the case. Tonight's conclusion promises an "astonishing" verdict; but, in a case so evenly balanced, it is hard to see what verdict could be very surprising.
The violence has been very restrained in Grafters (ITV) - Ray, the policeman whose wife has been sleeping with Joe (Robson Green), has so far managed to confine his evident psychotic impulses to vans, kitchen cupboards and evil chuckles down his mobile phone. In fact, the use of mobile phones is the most striking innovation in the series so far, opening out the drama in a way ordinary telephones never could - no conversation can carry on for more than a minute before somebody gets a bleep from their back pocket, and suddenly the cameras swing off to see who is making the call. Otherwise, the writers are too busy setting up new plotlines - the growing financial troubles of Joe's yuppie employers, the growing intimacy between the yuppie wife and Joe's brother, Trevor - that you never feel as if anything much is actually happening. Which, in fact, it isn't: the title Grafters was presumably meant to be sarcastic, since nobody ever does a stroke of work around here. Really, it's one of the most relaxing programmes I've seen in ages.
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