Sunday, 11 May 2014

‘Anti-hero’ Jack Bauer and his ticking clock returns to our television screens…

The return of Jack Bauer

Its been four years since Jack Bauer has been visible on our screens, but this week he comes out of hiding to once again beat the clock to thwart yet another conspiracy/terrorist produced chaos. 

Kiefer Sutherland spent 10 years playing the role of Jack Bauer (winning a Golden Globe and Emmy) and is back to reprise this anti-hero character who does what needs to be done in order to achieve justice.

Retaining the ‘real time’ method of narration made famous in the previous 10 seasons, 24: Live Another Day, restarts the ticking clock on another suspenseful, high-octane race to prevent an unthinkable terrorist attack and save the world. With the slight modification of covering 12 hours in real time, rather than the usual 24, Live Another Day continues to utilize the pulse-pounding, fast-paced format with split screens and interweaving storylines, and of course the signature Jack Bauer ‘I’m sucking a lemon’ scowl that tells you he is on a mission.
Set and shot in London, the suspenseful series once again follows the exploits of Jack, now a fugitive from justice. Despite his exiled status, he nevertheless seems yet again willing to risk his life and freedom to avert another global disaster. After 4 years, Bauer is up to his old tricks, trusting no-one, breaking the law, planting bugs, kicking some serious butt, and living in the land of all things ethically grey!

So…what is it about Jack Bauer?

In this iteration of 24, Jack is the ultimate ‘outsider’ to law – he is a fugitive with an instinct for violent action in response to possible terrorist activity. 

He follows no rules or laws except his own, has a unique instinct for violent action, and his isolation and alienation from the legal institutions he used to serve, has forced him to fall back completely on his own extra-legal ways. It is this extra-legality that we seem to love – the uncanny ability Jack possesses to know that torture, although illegal, is not only justified, but entirely effective and therefore necessary.

As the ‘outsider’ Jack is the damaged anti-hero who we love to see break the law in order to serve the greater good. As co-creator of 24 Robert Cochran says: 

"He doesn't often do the right thing, but he does the right thing by breaking the rules – that's kind of exciting and people want to root for that."

This is most evident in the trailer which you can see if you click here

In the clip, CIA operations chief Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt) is talking to Jack Bauer after two Russian diplomats are killed, and he says:
“I know how many lives you’ve saved — how much the country is in your debt – but they’re just going to see a man who snapped... Killing and mutilating with no regard to law or conscience. A man whose country now labels him a criminal; a terrorist.”
It will be interesting to see how long Jack Bauer will remain an enemy of the state in this latest season of 24. 

Will his ‘outsider’ status prove useful to the ultimate goal of saving the world from terrorist actions? 

Even more interesting for my law and pop culture students is the question surrounding the legitimacy of law in that world, and the ultimate efficacy of law in the search for justice. 

Is extra-legality now the necessity for effecting true justice? 

Let’s see what Jack tells us over the 12 hours of Live Another Day….


  1. First, I find it interesting that we are still riveted by Jack Bauer’s quest for justice 13 years after 9/11. What I find even more interesting is that the current season, Live Another Day, isn’t set in America, but is in London (the scene of the most recent public terror attack – the brutal murder of soldier Lee Rigby by two Nigerian Islamist men). The producers have clearly realised that it is important to keep the show relevant and realistic.

    The reference in the title of the series to Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond movie, Die Another Day, won’t be missed by many audience members. What I think is most notable about the connection is that Bond is imprisoned and tortured for 14 months at the opening of the film, and is assumed by MI6 to have leaked important information (which he hasn’t). Bond does not exact revenge or extract information through torture at any point during the film, instead he identifies and eliminates enemies through legitimate ends with properly-obtained and accurate information.

    Jack Bauer is not so nice. We often see him torture his enemies to obtain information which always leads him to the culprit, and he always saves the day. Jack never tortures the wrong person, and as Yin (285) points out, the viewer is always assured of the tortured’s guilt, due to the real-time, split-screen format of the show.

    Jack’s effectiveness complicates the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario, and seriously detracts from arguments against its use. Torture is never 100% effective: James Bond illustrates this, in his unfailing resistance to all methods of torture (remember that scene in Casino Royale? Ouch!). We are often reminded of torture’s failings in the daily news, where we hear of innocent people being targeted, and inaccurate information being retrieved and relied upon to the torturers’ detriment. Torture reverses the criminal law presumption of innocence, condemning potentially innocent people to physical abuse without the substantive and procedural protections of a fair trial.

    So as much as I enjoy the adventure and unfailingly positive resolution at the end of each series, I believe that Jack’s torture tactics aren’t just inaccurate: they’re dangerous. 24 is immensely popular and has a huge audience across the globe. In the age of terror, how can we watch Bauer save the day so effectively and not at least begin to believe that the ends have justified his means? We will begin to believe that extra-legality is now necessary for effecting true justice, rather than rely on Old Faithful James Bond to get the job done.

    I believe that a dose of reality and human mistake is sorely needed in 24. Jack shouldn’t be infallible – even Bond makes mistakes; why can’t Bauer? I note that this week’s episode (episode 2) is being advertised as Jack walking into a trap. Will it ultimately be a mistake of his own making? As much as I admire his 24-hour stamina, I sorely hope so!

  2. Samantha Rigney21 May 2014 at 17:49

    Whether extra-legality is required in order to achieve justice is wholly dependent on the context of the situation. In reality, the law is quite capable of achieving true justice in the vast majority of cases and should be given the opportunity to run its course before people resort to operating outside of it.

    Popular culture tends to capitalize on the law’s failings, particularly in counter-terrorism shows such as 24 and Homeland. In 24, the key protagonist Jack Bauer must operate outside the law in order to obtain the information he needs to thwart terrorist attacks. He tortures, kills and completely disregards the human rights of those in his path yet, as you’ve stated above, we as viewers can’t help but have faith in Jack’s decision-making. We view him as a hero and are encouraged to believe that his actions are warranted in order to achieve justice for those who have already died and to protect the public from further harm.

    24 portrays the law as inadequate in terms of protecting society from extremist behaviour and is critical of its ability to achieve justice due to the lack of efficiency and expediency within the legal system. This is evidenced by Jack’s constant reference to a lack of time when being asked whether his actions are lawful and further supported by the ongoing reference to the ticking clock throughout each episode and the ‘real time’ split frames. Jack’s argument for operating outside the law is that he needs to achieve results immediately as he has a limited timeframe in which he can operate if he is going to stop the next attack from occurring. He resorts to torture because he thinks it is his best chance of getting the information he needs and cannot wait several hours or even days for the suspect to be interviewed within the confines of the law, the likelihood being that they would not disclose the information without the use of extreme measures.

    The overall premise of the show appears to be that it is acceptable to operate outside the law in order to achieve a greater good, that being the protection of thousands of lives and the achievement of justice for the victims of terrorism. In saying this, we must remember that 24 is a dramatic depiction of a terrorist plot by screenwriters where the stakes are dire, the information is highly accurate and the authorities are well-informed. In reality, it is unlikely that the these elements will be present in any one situation which is why the rule of law is in place to stop people from taking the law into their own hands when they may not possess accurate information, therefore leading to mistakes being made and a miscarriage of justice.

    It is for this reason that operating extra-legally may be necessary in extreme situations such as terrorism but is not warranted in managing everyday legal issues as the law is capable, for the most part, of adequately achieving true justice.