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E-ring

Cast: Benjamin Bratt, Dennis Hopper, Aunjanue Ellis, Kelly Rutherford, Sarah Clarke
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET

(NBC)

Review [11.Jan.2006]

The Secret Business

If only the Pentagon was run by soldiers, and not those snivelly civilians. This is the simple premise of the even simpler E-Ring, Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest bequest to Planet TV. Civilians, we all know, don’t know the costs of war or its true rewards, enduring tragedy, earning camaraderie, and testing moral fiber, but instead imagine that war has to do with winning and gaining control of property.


E-Ring presents the inner workings of the Pentagon as a series of tensions among official divisions—the administration, the CIA, the Defense Department (DOD), and the Joint Chiefs. Everyone has something to say in this mix, and hardly anyone agrees on cost effectiveness, strategy and policy, and most important during these terrorized days, security. The pilot opens with a moving description of the Pentagon’s business by its newest newbie, Major Jim (JT) Tisnewski (Benjamin Bratt). “The security of the nation depends on the men and women who serve in the five rings of the Pentagon. Before any military action can be taken, approval must come from the outer, and most important ring, the E-ring.” It sounds kind of cosmic in this rendition, an effect enhanced by the camera’s gaze from on high at the familiar building, allowing you to imagine all the power, intelligence, and good intentions that go on inside. And then it cuts to the soap opera, and all such noble notions fall away.


Which is not to say that the series—with a first episode directed by Taylor Hackford, who knows how to frame a shot and give great lighting—doesn’t work overtime to maintain some semblance of respect for the Building (as insiders call the Pentagon-as-institution). In fact, the grand soundtrack, busy-looking montage sequences (particularly those showing series of signatures on official, pink, Pentagon forms authorizing warlike activities), slow motion battle or “extraction” scenes (as these are the activities undertaken in the Pilot and in “Snatch and Grab,” which airs 29 September), all suggest the work of the Pentagon is rather magnificent.


At least that’s the ideal. Much of the time leading up to these swelling-strings moments is spent arguing with snotty country club golfer and political appointee Richard Woodley (Gabriel Olds) (“Who’s never met a mission he ever liked”) and legal advisor Samantha Liston (Kelly Rutherford). His first day on the job—after 14 months in Afghanistan doing heroic duty—sets a pattern: he’s called in to deal with a Chinese asset, Kit Yee Cheung (Jennifer Chu), whose identity as a spy has been found out, and who needs help to escape, according to established protocol.


The suits are predictably hesitant to rescue her: does she really have info on Chinese stealth technology? Is she worth the risk, after six years of loyal service solicited by the CIA? And what about sending in the nearest available means of transport, a nuclear sub? What happens if Chinese satellites pick it up and officials read it as a sign of aggression? JT has an answer for all these concerns, the Marine’s oath never to leave behind a comrade. Apparently this is the fundamental difference between suits and soldiers: soldiers care about one another, no matter who they are. Suits count dollars and forsake duty as a matter of course.


Luckily, Jim finds an ally right off in his new CO, Colonel Eli McNulty. As played by Dennis Hopper, McNulty is crisp and ornery, but also just this side of delirious when uttering his gonzo army-guy dialogue, much as you might expect the Photojournalist to be, were he hired to look after Colonel Kurtz’s munitions. Just listen to him barking initial orders over the phone, roused in the middle of the night and standing in pretty filtered light in his boxers: “Get your ass down to the office,” he grrrrs, “We have a raging bull going down. Sgt. Pierce is in 1E239, she’ll download you. Get the 411 from the CIA and be at the ball ASAFP.”


No one else could make this sound like poetry quite like Hopper, so misfitted for this role that he seems perversely perfect. He ends his tirade by announcing that if the major has screwed up, “Your ass is grass and I will defoliate you.” He might as well have added, “And with a whimper, I’m fucking splitting, Jack,” but instead, he hangs up and turns to his dog and asks if he has to “go poopie.”


The earnest, rules-bending JT makes a less immediately good impression on Pierce (Aunjanue Ellis), whose job it is, she says, to keep him and the Colonel “out of jail,” by anticipating legal issues, documenting everything as properly as possible (getting those pink papers signed, a process she calls “putting fingerprints on the body”), and ensuring plausible deniability for actions that just go over the line. When he asks her to get coffee, she stiffens up, assuring him, “Whatever I can do to make your life easier, sir, I am ready, but I am not your Stepinfetchit.” As she walks off, he smiles at her “spunk,” not seeming to understand his own offensiveness.


Jim’s arrogance might make him more intriguing than the typical tv hero, though at this point it’s unclear whether E-Ring perceives this warrior-man as pompous or righteous (repeatedly, his splendiferous soundtrack makes him seem lofty in the corniest way). He exploits his romance with CIA agent Angie Aronson (Kelsey Oldershaw) but also harbors mild guilt over some past mission in Bogota, where he sent her into a dangerous spot. When he asks her for info as he’s trying to end-run the Chinese girl’s rescue, Angie has to remind him, “The CIA’s in the secret business JT, not the truth business,” a reminder that may be more directed at you than JT.


To add to JT’s potential ambiguity, his other Friend in the Building is former soldier and current Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Ops Steven Algazi (Joe Morton, whose own framing apparatus ranges from Brother from Another Planet to T2 to Stealth). McNulty says that Algazi “gets it,” because he’s a soldier, but for the most part, he’s reduced to background support, applauding JT’s “fresh from the field perspective,” which, Algazi says, “might enlighten us all.”


The fact is, in the first two episodes, the three gung-ho guys—McNulty, JT, and Algazy—all issue orders and then stand and watch the mission go down from the operations room, pacing or running their hands through their haircuts as younger men face and wield weapons in a distant, exoticized land, Shanghai and Afghanistan in these cases. The second episode has the team target a villain associated with Bin Laden (plus, the colonel observes, “He assisted the Chechens in that preschool blood bath in Russia”). The spy assigned to take his photo (for id purposes) introduces Tariq Mahayni (Theo Kypri) by calling him a “rotten piece of garbage,” which about sums up his non-speaking role. McNulty complains that Tariq got his degree at MIT: “We educate ‘em here and they take big dumps on us over there,” and Tariq pops up in frame every time the folks in the States mention his name, in fast-cut shady shots, wearing beard and turban, and tap-tapping on his laptop.


While such onerous enemies necessitate full force, according to the soldiers, they also understand risk. JT is “on the ground” in and around D.C., interacting with real people, not just his fellow mission planners. In the second episode, he’s got to deploy his buddy Bobby (Kerr Smith, looking considerably more bedraggled than he did in Dawson’s), still stuck in Afghanistan. This means extending Bobby’s already over-long 18 months in country a few more days. The Pentagon team sets the illegal “rendition” during the call to prayer (“prime fishing time”), naming greater goods and using a design lifted from John Wayne’s The Green Berets (“It’s old school,” explains JT). When JT worries that he’s not cut out for issuing such orders to friends, McNulty sets him straight: “If we don’t have warriors in the Pentagon, fighting for what they believe in, then we have good men dying for stupid reasons out there.”


Still, JT promises to inform Bobby’s wife Beth (Ashley Williams) of the decision. Yet another angry family member who has trouble with the military’s absolute control over their increasingly chaotic lives, she accuses JT of having gone over to the bad guys—the administration’s—side. “What is the damn point of having a friend in the Pentagon,” she wonders, if you can’t pull a few strings?” When JT offers a platitude (he’d trade places with Bobby if he cold), she’s had enough. “You guys, you’re all the same. I guess this time, if he dies out there, at least I’ll have someone to blame. So that’s you.”


JT leaves Beth’s house, welcome home party decorations on the kitchen table and kids asleep upstairs, he steps over a curb that has painted on it their house number and a U.S. flag. The flag shows up in all sorts of places in the series, here apparently ironically, in the Pentagon probably less so. Embodying this mix of emotions, morals, and politics, JT is looking more complicated than the rest of E-Ring. Maybe the show will catch up to him and throw wrenches into its already reductive, action-movie-derived formula. And maybe Dennis Hopper will pull out his old photos from Cambodia.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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Hopper plays McNulty with all kinds of pro-military gusto, though he's perpetually pissed off at the administration, because civilians tend to miss points and tactics.
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