History is littered with disasters, but Hollywood can fix them. Ignominious defeat in Vietnam? We'll send Rambo back to do the job properly. Want to kick the Brits for the War of Independence? We'll make The Patriot, and turn the British army into the 18th-century Waffen SS. But while rewriting history may be all very well 200 - or even 30 - years after the event, turning current events into screen drama is a much tougher call. It has taken five years for the 9/11 attacks to reach the cinema, via Paul Greengrass's United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, but some believe that's still indecently quick, even if the movies dutifully honoured the American dead and have been mostly well received. Yet none of the same sensitivities appear to have been bruised by the way the TV networks have been running their own fantasy commentary on the War on Terror almost since the day of the al-Qa'ida attacks.
As the international situation has lurched from crisis to disaster since 9/11, the networks have been pumping out reams of programming seething with terror plots, covert agencies and geopolitical paranoia, from the BBC's Spooks to US-made productions including NCIS, Alias and 24. The background to the World Trade Centre attacks was explored (none too accurately, according to many critics) in The Path To 9/11. Further recent American arrivals on British TV have included Sleeper Cell (in which a Muslim FBI agent infiltrates a terrorist conspiracy), The Unit (depicting the exploits of a top secret Special Forces team), and E-Ring, which takes its name from "the outer and most important ring" of the Pentagon where critical military operations are planned. The Grid, a lumbering mini-series about the complexities of co-ordinating transatlantic counter-terrorism, was a co-production between the BBC and TNT. Its successor is BBC1's The State Within, a bafflingly complex six-parter bristling with terrorist outrages and political conspiracies. For the TV studios, terrorism is big business. But should it be, and is it good for us?
24 was the Big Bang moment in the current boom in telly-terror because of its revolutionary real-time format, its claustrophobic obsession with conspiracy and betrayal within the American political and security establishments, and, most conspicuously, for its timing. The first series began airing on the American Fox network in November 2001, only two months after 9/11, though obviously the planning and writing had begun long before. Now gearing up for a sixth season for the start of next year and with a spin-off feature film in prospect, 24 rescued Kiefer Sutherland from a twilight zone of bad movies and obscure TV guest appearances, and possibly triggered the trend towards making television a respectable home for movie actors.
Equally significantly, 24 set a tone President Bush might admire - terrorism is the deadliest enemy, and no weapon will be left unused in combatting it. Its makers have made no bones about their hawkish sympathies, with co-creator Joel Surnow happy to admit to 24's conservative leanings. When the Council of American-Islamic Relations became alarmed by what it considered a negative portrayal of Muslims, Kiefer Sutherland responded by appearing in placatory public service announcements, but Surnow has refused to blunt the show's ruthless edge.
"For it to have any believability and resonance, we had to deal with the world we're living in, and the terrorists are the jihadists," he says. "It wouldn't feel realistic if you did anything else."
For Sutherland's Jack Bauer and his fellow agents, there's never any question of civil liberties or other liberal wimpishness taking precedence over the urgency of their mission. When Bauer's Counter Terrorist Unit planned to torture suspects to extract details about a threatened nuclear attack on the US, the chief terrorist called an outfit called Amnesty Global (having presciently stored their number as a speed-dial on his phone), and, to Bauer's disgust, they wheeled out a human rights lawyer to stall the ongoing atrocities.
For Surnow, there's no question that torture can be a legitimate counter-terrorism tool. "If there's a bomb about to hit a major US city and you have a person with information... if you don't torture that person, that would be one of the most immoral acts you could imagine," he argues. CTU do at least dispense torture even-handedly, since they'll happily torture their own agents if they suspect they may be leaking intelligence to the enemy.
Nonetheless, after Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and White House guidelines about what kinds of torture are officially acceptable, we've been struggling with the realisation that the use of torture is no longer one of the ways by which you can recognise the bad guys. It's shocking to find this once-deplorable practice embedded in a TV drama, as if it's routine enough to serve as a mere strand in TV's entertainment mix.
Not that 24 is unique. Darwyn, deep-cover hero of Sleeper Cell, was gruesomely tormented by his terrorist quarry, while several hideously imaginative forms of coercion cropped up in Alias, J J Abrams' spellbinding mix of spies, counter-spies, agencies-within-agencies, family dysfunction and Doomsday prophecies. Abrams went on to make Lost, in which former Iraqi soldier Sayid exploits the torturer's skills he perfected on behalf of Saddam Hussein. Even Spooks is at it, with an MI5 agent getting her head shoved into a deep-fat fryer in series one, and Rupert Penry-Jones's Adam Carter apparently having his teeth drilled without anaesthetic in another episode.
So are TV's legions of secret operatives, on either side of the Atlantic, surrogate outriders for official government policy, warning us of the bottomless pit of horrors lurking within the global anti-terror struggle? As surveillance and state intrusion soar to disturbing new levels under the Blair government, are the telly-agents helping to soften us up for further systematic repression of personal freedoms? TV has a long tradition of popular series about official agencies, from the police and the military to the secret services and even Customs & Excise, but while these habitually feature headstrong mavericks who refuse to play by the rules, they're still public employees who work for the state. Hence, the viewer can't help being manipulated into a kind of complicity with the machinery of officialdom.
The BBC's Spooks is a fine example, and likes to play with the notion that its fictional MI5 somehow enjoys an autonomous existence beyond the meddling reach of Whitehall. Department boss Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) frequently crosses swords with slimy politicians as he seeks to defend his independence. However, once the TV is turned off, we must hope that wise viewers revert to a default position of regarding the real MI5 as an arm of the state security apparatus which bugs, blackmails and peddles officially-sanctioned misinformation.
The Americans are even less prone than the British to making TV shows that challenge the underpinnings of their democracy, and if you chop in half even the most vehemently Bush-denouncing American liberal you'll still find the word "patriot" running through the middle. However, it has traditionally been unusual for anyone in left-leaning Hollywood to stand up and link arms with the establishment and the military. This phenomenon was noted by TV producer Donald P Bellisario, who is probably best known over here as the maker of Quantum Leap, but is also the power behind JAG (about officers-turned-lawyers working within the military) and its successor, NCIS (about a team of US Navy investigators).
"Hollywood is a very liberal community, and it doesn't have a great affinity for the military," said Bellisario, an ex-Marine. "When JAG started, 'military' was almost a pejorative term... When 9/11 unfortunately happened, that gave us some impetus among people who had never seen JAG before to just see what the military was like. People always forget the military until there's a crisis."
If the War on Terror has meant new opportunities for Bellisario, he's not alone. Last year Steven Bochco, creator of Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue, delivered Over There for the FX network, a series about the US Army in Iraq and the repercussions of the war on the families back home. It was the first drama series ever made about American troops involved in an ongoing military engagement, though that may have proved its undoing. Bochco was so keen to present the overwhelming realities of combat and its aftermath that any considerations of why the troops had been sent there and whether their sacrifice was justified were omitted. The show was axed after one series.
Another Hollywood titan surfing the post-9/11 tide is Jerry Bruckheimer, who has already turned the history of warfare into one gigantic Stars'n'Stripes via such widescreen romper-stompers as Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down, and now lords it over TV-land with CSI, Without A Trace and Cold Case. Bruckheimer's latest offering, currently showing on FX in the UK, is E-Ring, starring Benjamin "Law & Order" Bratt as a Special Ops major seconded to the Pentagon. His boss is cantankerous Colonel Bob McNulty, played by Dennis Hopper, who has now travelled the full 180 degrees from the counter-culture icon of Easy Rider to the heart of the US military establishment.
With its tabloid-lite storylines about Muslims launching plague attacks or genocidal Serbs getting their come-uppance, intercut with what look like recruitment ads for the US military, E-Ring promises to stretch even Bruckheimer's magical powers to their limits. As USA Today put it, "the idea that our military fates might be in the hands of people this stupid is too horrifying to contemplate". Meanwhile, some of the dialogue speaks more volumes than it intended to. "They're trying to finish the job they started on 9/11," growls Hopper, as jihadists try to poison commuters on the Washington subway. "Well not on my watch!"
To display even-handedness, a Muslim data analyst at the Pentagon says: "This crazy minority gives us all a bad name." "Don't worry about it," Bratt reassures him, as spontaneously as if he's trying to read the lines off his shoe without his contact lenses. "Muslims don't have a corner on the kook market."
Beyond the herds of stereotypes roaming across the great plains of Bruckheimer-land, Muslims haven't been slow to grasp the potential of terror-vision. Channel 4's Jihad TV earlier this month examined how terrorist groups are exploiting the potential of cheap video equipment and the internet to wage a ferocious propaganda war against what they see as anti-Muslim imperialism, peppering the web with images of suicide bombings and the beheading of hostages like a kind of YouTube from hell. Closer to the mainstream, Syrian TV viewers have been gripped by a home-grown drama series called The Renegades, which examines the actions and motivations of suicide bombers, and explores the way terrorism destroys Muslim lives and families as surely as any others. Its director, Najdat Anzour, says he's in talks with Channel 4 to get the series shown in Britain.
But can Anzour's other-side-of-the-coin perspective immunise him against the strange power of the War on Terror to suck people in and unplug their critical faculties? FX's other new import, The Unit, was created by playwright and screenwriter David Mamet, in collaboration with Shawn Ryan. Mamet wrote such lacerating demolitions of American values as Glengarry Glen Ross and House Of Games, while Ryan masterminded the morally ambivalent police drama The Shield. But despite a dominating lead performance by Dennis Haysbert (now liberated from playing President Palmer in 24 by an assassin's bullet), their combined efforts haven't managed to make The Unit much more than a superior Special Forces soap, with the husbands out mowing down terrorists while their wives raise kids, complain about military secrecy or have affairs with senior officers. Under the new ethos of "militainment", it's as if considerations of patriotism and national solidarity preclude any ethical or political questions about The Unit's activities.
However, even in this stand-to-attention climate, Jerry Bruckheimer's Profiles From The Front Line was rapidly axed by its makers ABC, who had originally promised that it would "transport viewers to actual battlefields in central Asia" to watch American servicemen pursuing al-Qa'ida. The project enjoyed the personal endorsement of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, prompting accusations that this was the point at which entertainment metamorphosed into propaganda. As CBS news anchorman Dan Rather put it, "I'm outraged by the Hollywoodisation of the military. The Pentagon would rather make troops available as props in gung-ho videos than explain how the commanders let Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida leaders escape." But in the Pentagon's real-life E-Ring, as the White House flounders around trying to find a Richard Nixon-esque "peace with honour" formula which will let them hightail it out of Iraq, the top brass may well be asking each other "what would Hollywood do?"