Hollywood is notorious for its meetings, but even by L.A. standards this one was unusual.
A few steps away from the CTU set of Fox’s “24,” an unlikely alliance of human rights activists, the dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and veteran interrogators with experience stretching from Saigon to Abu Ghraib gathered around two tables in mid-November. The group was there to meet with some of the creative forces behind “24,” one of television’s most successful serialized dramas, famous for its relentless derring-do depiction of an American counter-terrorism unit.
The East Coast crowd didn’t fly into town to pitch another quasi-military action series, but rather to advance a simple plea: Make your torture scenes more authentic.
By that, they did not mean bloodier or more savage. Instead, they wanted “24" to show torture subjects taking weeks or months to break, spitting out false or unreliable intelligence, and even dying. As they do in the real world.
“We’re not opposed to having torture on television, but 98% of the time when it is shown, it’s ‘Bing, bang, boom,’ and it works,” said David Danzig, director of the Prime Time Torture Project for the New York-based organization Human Rights First. “Frankly, it’s unrealistic and it’s kind of boring.”
More troubling, the disparate group told “24" writers and executive producers, are the social and political consequences of television’s current version of torture and who is performing it. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prime-time television has seen a surge of torture sequences.
From 1996 to 2001, there were 102 scenes of torture, according to the Parents Television Council. But from 2002 to 2005, that figured had jumped to 624, they said. “24" has accounted for 67 such scenes during its first five seasons, making it No. 1 in torture depictions, according to the watchdog group.
The increase in quantity is not the only difference. During this uptick in violence, the torturer’s identity was more likely to be an American hero like “24’s” Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) than the Nazis and drug dealers in pre-9/11 days. The action-packed show, which drew a hefty 13.6 million viewers last week, was among the first and certainly the most prominent to have its main character choke, stab or electrocute -- among other techniques -- information out of villains.
“It’s unthinkable that Capt. Kirk would torture someone,” said Danzig.
While hardly alone in the entertainment universe of television and movies in portraying torture, shows like “24" and later ABC’s “Lost” were sought out by the human rights activists because of their popularity, both here and around the world. Even in Iraq, such series can sometimes substitute for or trump military training, and transmit a dark message to soldiers.
“Everyone wanted to be a Hollywood interrogator,” said Tony Lagouranis, a former U.S. Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq who spoke to the creative teams from “24" and “Lost.” “That’s all people did in Iraq was watch DVDs of television shows and movies. What we learned in military schools didn’t apply anymore.”
At the infamous Iraqi prison for nearly all of 2004, Lagouranis soon left the military and went to the media to detail the torture, largely ineffective, that was inflicted upon the inmates. He said that his actions -- sleep deprivation, hypothermia, dietary manipulations and use of dogs, all illegal according to American and international law -- were relatively mild compared with what else was being practiced.
“It’s an ugly thing,” said Lagouranis. “You don’t get neat, tidy answers like you do on television.”
The Hollywood meeting, a spirited back-and-forth discussion with its moments of defensiveness by most accounts, lasted a couple of hours and was followed by an Italian lunch. For the “24" team, the afternoon served as a rare opportunity for it to debrief real-world interrogators, but it also stirred up television’s age-old tension between entertainment and social responsibility.
“The meeting was an eye-opener,” said “24" executive producer Howard Gordon. “We hadn’t really thought a lot about torture as anything more than a dramatic device.”
As a result, Gordon has been filmed for a Humans Rights First video about torture that is expected to be used next fall at West Point and perhaps other military organizations as well. Executive producers from “Lost” also agreed to be in the video, which was shot last month.
Human Rights First, a nonprofit group with an annual budget of about $7 million, plans to continue pushing the point. They are in talks with the Writers Guild of America to bring in its team of former interrogators to discuss real-world experiences with Hollywood writers.
It’s typically a cold, snowy day in Hollywood when time-pressured, well-moneyed producers agree to face-to-face talks with a nonprofit group armed with an agenda inherently critical of their shows’ themes. But like most successful Hollywood ventures, relationships and serendipity played a big part in bringing the sides together.
Last year, Human Rights First was contacted by David Zabel, an executive producer of NBC’s “ER,” who was fact-checking a show story thread about the crisis in Darfur. The connection ultimately proved fortuitous. Zabel knew his counterparts at “24" and “Lost,” whose ensemble includes a sympathetic torturer named Sayid, and introduced them to the human rights group.
Meanwhile, Danzig, whose father was former secretary of the Navy under the Clinton administration, helped recruit military interrogators and West Point’s dean to travel to Hollywood.
“I was pretty skeptical to begin with,” said retired Col. Stu Herrington, who worked U.S. Army interrogations from Vietnam to the first Gulf War. “I mean, these guys have a load of Emmys, a top show. Why should they listen to us? Their business model is based upon a shtick where Jack tortures the hell out of someone and they save the world.”
The “24" team immediately challenged that view with openness and candor. It’s true that Jack Bauer has tortured suspects, but he’s no cartoon character, Gordon argued. “Our opinion is Jack Bauer hurts people and whether right or wrong, he’s suffering for it,” said Gordon.
Bauer, himself the victim of horrible violence, clearly is traumatized by what he’s forced to do to others in the name of national security. In one instance this season, while in pursuit of information on the whereabouts of a suitcase nuke in Los Angeles, Bauer didn’t have the stomach to torture a suspect. Later, however, the action hero recovered his steely nerve and put a plastic bag over the head of his evil brother for information.
To Gordon and the “Lost” producers, it’s almost absurd that they should have to make clear that the fictionalized torture events are intended for anything other than entertainment.
“ ‘24' is a television show with its own dramatic requirements which are reductive and unreal,” said Gordon. “And to that extent, we would like to participate in any way we can with disabusing young kids in the military of any confusion over that.”
CBS’ “The Unit” is another successful prime-time show that revolves around an American counter-terrorism unit. However, the show has consciously avoided having its “good guys” torture.
“We’ve tried to show the futility of it and how it hurts both parties,” said Shawn Ryan, an executive producer of “The Unit,” which has devoted a couple episodes to the topic. “But I realize that safety comes first for people, and things like civil freedoms can become endangered in times of war and fear. And we live in a time of war and fear. I mean, how much useful information was pulled from Abu Ghraib? Probably none. But how much damage did it do to America around the world?”
In extremely rare instances, torture may actually work, said Herrington, who notes it’s still practiced in many other countries. But what is far more likely to happen in such cases is the torturer will receive unreliable information -- or will lose their suspect completely.
“A human being isn’t a light switch,” said Joe Navarro, a former counterintelligence agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “We don’t really know when someone will go into shock or when they will faint or even die.”
Real-life interrogations are much more about building trust or staging psychological games to induce a subject to talk -- and keep talking, added Navarro.
Sympathetic with the human rights group’s agenda, producers for both “24" and “Lost” agreed to be interviewed on camera for an educational video for the military. Taping a public service message is one thing. Tinkering with the fragile, almost mystical, insides of a hit television show is another.
Producers for both shows balked at saying whether story lines would actually shift as a result of their discussions.
“It’s a lot more dynamic to see somebody tortured than to win someone’s trust,” said Carlton Cuse, an executive producer of “Lost.” “Particularly in the framework of an action/adventure show like ‘Lost’ and ’24.’ ”