Previous seasons of "24" have received prequels, but they've always been abbreviated affairs with tons of product placement relegated to the DVD sets. Just the fact that they were made at all was something notable. Had it not been for the writers' strike and the postponement of the seventh season, this extended prequel would not exist. The question is this: will these two hours feel justified and crucial once the seventh season begins, or will it feel as extraneous as those other prequels have?
Two things immediately get in the way of true Jack Bauer Power Hour greatness. The first is probably the most obvious: the incredibly blatant product placement throughout the entire production. Highlighting Sprint, Cisco, and other sponsors has always been part of the "24" genetic code. Name-dropping specific services and products from those sponsors, on the other hand, represents a new and glaringly invasive approach. (I'm not sure there are adverbs yet created to convey my annoyance.)
The second problem is, predictably, Howard Gordon. Over the course of the series, Gordon has been perhaps the greatest impediment to the quality of the series as a whole. Gordon has championed the process of making each season up as they go along since day one, and still defends that practice as creatively prudent when the end results have often undermined the strengths of the premise. Gordon also loves to play to the cheap seats, and this entire production is dripping with earnest sentimentality and cookie-cutter intrigue.
That said, Gordon (possibly with the help of the rest of the writing staff) managed to incorporate an interesting bit of character exploration in the midst of the cloying approach to African Human Rights Violations 101. I doubt it was the most obvious parallel in the world, but it was unexpected enough to catch my attention.
First, a quick recap on the story: Jack Bauer has been ducking a subpoena to appear before a Senate subcommittee related to various questionable actions taken by CTU, many of which came at his hand. His travels have taken him to a school in a fictional African nation where a corrupt general, supported by the outgoing US president and his shady ally (played by Jon Voight), is about to stage a coup. The general's methods include the press-gang recruitment of child soldiers, which puts the school in the crosshairs. Cue the return of heroic Jack Bauer, who does everything to save the children at the school, which ultimately means Jack must acknowledge that annoying subpoena.
I've never been a huge fan of mining real-world tragedy for easy sentiment. It's too often a case of borrowing the emotions associated with those atrocities than making the public aware of them (think "Blood Diamonds" or "Rambo"). The treatment of the child soldiers is used to tell us how horrible the enemy is and how heroic Jack is for saving the children from that fate. It's a means to an end. To put it another way: the same exact plot would have worked without the child soldier element, which makes it seem like a calculated addition.
I was a little more impressed by the Washington machinations, if only because they usually give scope to whatever insanity Jack is trying to manage. (I promise, it wasn't just because of those glamour shots of Carly Pope!). While Jack's journey in the film was relatively self-contained, the Washington material was clearly background information to be referenced in the seventh season proper. Those scenes provided a nice primer on the politics at play: the weak outgoing Democratic president covering up his implication in the African crisis, the Republican successor and her family preparing to deal with the fallout.
By far, the highlight of the film was Jack Bauer's internal crisis. The end of the sixth season, besides capping off one hell of a mess, left Jack at his lowest possible point. My hope was that the writers would approach the series as a three-act wh