Docudramas' true stories ring false

Elizabeth Smart and Jessica Lynch remain mysteries


November 08, 2003|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,THE HARTFORD COURANT

With The Reagans out of the picture, the remaining network docudramas for November sweeps will run opposite one another and are uncannily similar in approach.

Both concern blond American teens, faultless though seemingly one-dimensional: perfect daughters loaded with potential and unburdened by boyfriends or any contemporary problems. One becomes a prisoner of war for nine days; the other is kidnapped for nine months. Both generally keep quiet, endure and are eventually rescued. Both become household names.

What's odd about NBC's Saving Jessica Lynch (seen locally on WBAL-TV, Channel 11) and CBS's The Elizabeth Smart Story (WJZ-TV, Channel 13) - both shows are on tomorrow at 9 p.m. - is that neither of the actresses who play the young women in the titles says more than a few lines. They're one-dimensional characters, about whom the viewers have learned very little even after the re-creations are over, other than that they survived. That could be because neither film was expressly sanctioned by its subject.

The Lynch story was constructed from prevailing - and widely varying - reports until it obtained the story of Iraqi lawyer Mohammed Odeh Al-Rehaief. As a result, much of the film concerns his efforts to alert American forces to where she was being held. He also has a book out: Because Each Life Is Precious: Why an Iraqi Man Risked Everything for Private Jessica Lynch (HarperCollins, $23.95).

The Smart story is closer to home; it was based on the accounts of her parents, who have their own new book: Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope (Doubleday, $22.95). But because they don't know, won't say or refuse to imagine what happened to their daughter while she was kidnapped, Elizabeth is also presented as something of a blank. She says she wants to go home, but is hesitant to respond to rescuers within earshot.

Neither film dares create a context. Both rely on the viewer's knowing the essential newspaper facts of the stories. Nothing needs to be set up, and more important, nothing needs to be summarized or analyzed.

This in particular hurts the Lynch movie. The only reason everyone knows her name is that the rescue - the details of which are still in contention - was initially exaggerated by U.S. officials speaking off the record to newspapers, spinning grand tales of her emptying her gun into soldiers and sustaining gunshot and stab wounds. It turns out that her gun jammed, and she never took a shot. She was injured when U.S. vehicles crashed during an ambush.

Producers stay closer to the revised version, although The Washington Post reports there was no Iraqi hospital nurse married to a lawyer, according to Al-Rehaief's story; nor was there anything particularly exciting about the rescue, since Iraqi soldiers had already left the hospital.

Making Lynch into a brave heroine of a positive story might have been calculated to offset reports of setbacks, including the fact that several members of her 507th Maintenance Company died in an ambush. The clear intent of the film is to ride that good feeling while not muddying it with details and context. For a "rescue" criticized as looking like it was staged by Hollywood, here is that Hollywood version.

Though the film doesn't use the schmaltzy country song heard on commercials, it's full of stirring orchestral music. Fully half of the film is taken up by the ambush near Nasiriyah, where her convoy had lost its way.

There's nothing at the end of the film - none of the machinations that made her first a symbol of heroism and then a symbol of hype and made her case interesting - except Lynch waving at a hometown parade in West Virginia.

As in Saving Jessica Lynch, the acting in The Elizabeth Smart Story is nondescript, the direction workmanlike, the story plodding as it proceeds from crime to resolution in the dry style of Law & Order or CSI. Smart's story, in particular, punctuated with titles like "6 Hours Missing," is patterned on Without a Trace.

The Smart film joins other recent docudramas, including DC Sniper, that have no problem indicting and condemning people who have yet to go to trial.

Mostly, these films are meant to tell the simplest, most obvious stories quickly, cheaply and brainlessly. That may be what people expect from docudramas.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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