The Guardian 1 June, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 5 June ó Sat 11 June


The Elvis industry must be undergoing a periodic business downturn; receipts at Graceland must be down, sales of souvenirs and CDs likewise. Time for an infusion of publicity in the form of another show business panegyric disguised as a documentary.

Time for Elvis By The Presleys (ABC 8.30pm Sunday). A typical product of the "insiders reveal all" school of showbusiness documentary, this one "features intimate interviews with his former wife Priscilla, and daughter Lisa Marie" (yawn).

But donít despair, the program also promises "rare interviews with Elvisís first cousin". How could you possibly bare to miss it?

The US has more intelligence services ó open and covert ó than most other countries have political parties. Far more. And yet this army of military, civil, commercial, diplomatic and lord knows what other intelligence agencies cannot apprehend a wealthy Saudi Arabian terrorist leader named Osama Bin Laden.

Apprehend? They claim they cannot even find him. In Dead or Alive: The Hunt For Bin Laden (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday), assorted CIA, Pentagon and White House intelligence types tell us in detail why they cannot find Bin Laden.

They donít say so, but their accounts have all been passed by their respective agencies as not containing any secrets, so donít expect any revelations. However, if you read between the lines it can be interesting.

In 1996, when the CIA set up a special unit dedicated to tracking Bin Laden exclusively, the White House insisted that he be caught, not killed. That could have been awkward for US intelligence agencies, for as a long-standing US intelligence "asset" in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Bin Laden under questioning might reveal compromising information.

Bin Laden could only be killed if he did something really reprehensible. So lo and behold, he blows up two American embassies in Africa. How convenient.

Clinton immediately sanctioned a cruise missile strike on the facility where Bin Laden was believed to be hiding. But, as usual, Bin Laden escaped assassination and went on the run.

Supposedly, he eventually fled into the Tora Bora mountains on the border with Pakistan, where once again the US cannot find him. There are those who think the US is not all that serious about finding him.

Paul Bergen, one of the few journalists to interview Bin Laden face-to-face says the fact that "there were more American journalists at Tora Bora than American soldiers speaks for itself".

A new four-part series begins in the Catalyst slot this week, Space Odyssey ó Voyage To The Planets (ABC 8.00pm Thursdays).

From the makers of Walking With Dinosaurs, and narrated by David Suchet, this excellent ó and exciting ó series was made by Impossible Pictures for the BBC, the Discovery Channel and ProSieben. It takes us on a stunningly realistic dramatised mission to explore our solar system.

We follow five astronauts (and one cosmonaut) who are supposedly on a six-year mission to visit every planet in the solar system, starting with Venus and working outwards. On the surface of Venus, they land near one of the old Soviet Venera probes and the Russian crew member, Flight Engineer Yvan Grigorev, jeopardises the expedition through a foolhardy dash to retrieve a piece of the old Russian vehicle.

The somewhat patronising attitude towards the lone Russian cosmonaut in the crew is ironic, not only given the extent of Russian experience in space exploration, but also given the use the filmmakers made of Russian space facilities.

I quote from the publicity sheet for the program: "To ensure convincing performances, the actors Ö spent a week at the world-class Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut training facilities at Star City, just outside Moscow. The team spent time on spacecraft simulators there, sharing time with a crew bound for the International Space Station.

"Here, the actors practiced space walks in a massive neutral buoyancy tank where they floated around a full-scale space station mock-up, and rode the extreme Gs of the largest covered centrifuge in the world."

To achieve genuine shots of the crew in a state of weightlessness, "the actors (in real space suits), props, spacecraft sets, and filming team were loaded on board a colossal cosmonaut-training cargo plane which flew a series of stomach-churning parabolic curves ó climbing hard then heading into a steep dive ó to mimic zero gravity.

"The contents of the plane are effectively in free fall, creating weightlessness for all those on board." The plane is presumably one of those huge Antonovs, the plane of choice world-wide today whenever a massive airlift is required.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the series is very convincingly real. The only criticism being a tendency on the part of the script to emphasise the dangers in a manner that smacks of the melodramatic. Of course, by compressing the six-year mission into four half-hour episodes, the encounters with danger do seem to come at the crew rather more rapidly than they would in reality.

The two-part series Cecil B. De Mille: American Epic (ABC 9.30pm Thursdays) goes overboard about De Mille, a man most famous for larding his biblical epics with lots of sex.

De Mille was never a great director, but he was a good showman, and for the commercial moguls who ran Hollywood, he was the perfect director. The documentary shows that in his early days he did in fact try to make serious pictures, with genuinely artistic photography and effects.

But, it says, the public wanted spectacle and sex, so thatís what he gave them. This claim ó that itís the public that wants bad films, not money-making studios and filmmakers ó is not new, and is no more correct now than when it was first made.

De Mille epitomised what was wrong with Hollywood: lavish spending on the deliberate making of trash. His films were competent, efficient, sometimes clever and usually entertaining. They were never in the forefront of "the best American cinema".

That honour went to other filmmakers, every bit as "commercial" as De Mille, but filmmakers who gave the public a modicum of credit for having some intelligence. De Milleís films were too often in the category US journalists dubbed "no-brainers".

I found this documentary, with its unreal regard for his career, ultimately boring. Directed by noted archivist of the silent screen Kevin Brownlow, the program does reproduce some remarkable visual effects (including early coloured and tinted scenes).

But you have to put up with a lot of nonsense about what a great artist De Mille was. De Mille had nothing to say, and a detailed examination of the life and career of such an artist can only be boring after a while.

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