Docudrama presents actual people and events within a narrative structured by fiction film’s codes and conventions.

Saving Jessica Lynch encompasses both a war story....

... and a biopic about Lynch’s coming from a small town in West Virginia.

Saving Jessica Lynch re-creates the video....

... that the army shot and...

allowed broadcast after her rescue.

Here an enacted image of Lynch in pain. The fiction can root itself in the already well known army video and expand on it. Docudrama “models” a story taken from contemporary experience by imaginatively developing its emotional aspects. Depicted in this film is a hero’s pain and suffering, but also a woman’s victimization.

The fiction also draws upon the images and narrative moves of the war film genre, here showing a rocket in flight. Docudrama fictionalizes elements of contemporary experience so as to allow the audience to feel what are otherwise undocumented aspects of current events and social problems.

The relatable real:
docudrama, ethics, and Saving Jessica Lynch

by Steve Lipkin

On Sunday night, November 9, 2003, NBC premiered Saving Jessica Lynch (P. Markle). As a movie-of-the-week docudrama, Saving Jessica Lynch re-creates what had been one of the major and more controversial news events of the then weeks-old war in Iraq. Lynch’s unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, consisting of a long convoy of supply trucks and repair vehicles, made a series of wrong turns and attempted to go through, rather than around, the city of Nasiriyah. The group was ambushed, with initially sixteen of its members listed as “missing.” Several appeared shortly afterward on television as prisoners of war.

Lynch, one of the seriously wounded survivors, was taken to an Iraqi hospital. When U.S. forces extracted Lynch from the hospital initial news coverage embraced United States officials’ eagerness to headline the heroism of Lynch’s resistance to capture, and the apparently daring raid that retrieved her. Jessica Lynch became a news commodity, not only as Operation Iraqi Freedom’s first rescued POW, but also as a celebrity. Within weeks she sold her life rights for the production of a movie-of-the-week based on her exploits. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt announced he had acquired nude pictures of Lynch. Finally, in the fall of 2003 Lynch’s book (I Am A Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story)[1] and NBC’s docudrama were offered to the public simultaneously. Numerous web sites appeared examining every facet of Lynch’s life, including her wounds, her recuperation, and her wedding plans.[2]

Jessica Lynch remains, perhaps in every sense of the word, one of the more constructed emblems of the Bush administration’s post-September 11 conflict of culture: “Jessica Lynch” connotes U.S. innocence used by the forces at war in this conflict, somehow emerging through strength of spirit to resume a normal life as a normal, small-town American. The movie-of-the-week docudrama version of the errors that put Lynch’s convoy in the line of fire, and Lynch’s subsequent capture and rescue aired a mere seven months after the events it depicts. The film’s broadcast, coinciding with the release and promotion of Lynch’s story in print, precipitated revisiting charges about this story raised in the media, namely that the United States government had exploited as a propaganda opportunity what had happened to Lynch, as well as any heroism in her service to her country.

Saving Jessica Lynch draws on two sources for its re-creation of its story, Lynch’s memories, and the account offered by Iraqi lawyer Mohammed al-Rehaief of his efforts to provide the U.S. military the information it needed to extract Lynch from the Iraqi hospital where she was being held.

True to its form as a movie-of-the-week docudrama, the film narrates the material it documents (it is, as opening credits reminds us, “based on a true story”) through the codes and conventions of the classic Hollywood narrative film. It draws on the strategies characteristic of melodrama, and in particular those of stories about victims and the trials they face. The sense of victimization in the film is, however, a two-edged sword.

In a key moment, as Lynch’s convoy has been decimated, victorious fedayeen shoot the dead, dying, and wounded U.S. soldiers. We see Lynch’s body, pulled from the wreckage of a Humvee, sprawled helpless and broken on the street. The fedayeen leader notices that she is conscious, moves closer to her, leans down to her, and says, “Welcome to my country.” The scene shows the fedayeen as guerilla fighters, ruthlessly using their streets against an inadequately prepared, out-of-place U.S. force incapable of effectively defending itself. The scene raises the question: What has victimized Lynch and the others?

Certainly “embedded” news coverage of the war in Iraq has provided an iconography both of what we believe that country at war looks like, as well as of its U.S. combatants, and the film, shot on location in Texas, adheres faithfully to that “look.” There is a further blending in Saving Jessica Lynch of biopic and war story. We see the following kinds of scenes:

  • Lynch as small-town girl (flashbacks show us her pre-war life in West Virginia)
  • Lynch as innocent victim/soldier
  • two different rescue stories
    • al-Rehaief’s story, showing how he assumes great risk to tell the U.S. army where Lynch is
    • the story of the army’s rescue based on his information
  • the larger war story itself.

What is at stake, ethically, in the broadcast market’s efforts to thrust Jessica Lynch into the culture of war? British theatre historian Derek Paget states in his fifth “Modest Proposal” about docudrama, that

“To theatricalize public occurrence is to engage in a mode of aesthetic and ethical inquiry.”[3]

Paget’s proposition identifies what is tantamount to an ethical imperative. In the case of the works presented as movie-of-the-week (MOW) docudramas on U.S. television, an ethical imperative suggests that these are stories that should be told, and told this way. The proposition invites us to confront the purposes and effects of docudrama. Why might one particular story be exemplary? What results when a story is offered to the world as itself “based on a true story”?

What docudramas are and what they do create at least three fundamental arenas of ethical consideration that I will examine below:

It is first necessary to view television MOW docudramas as “documents.” Representing actual people, places, and events traditionally has been the work of documentary film. Docudramas, in part, share this work as a function of their storytelling. Here their proximity to actuality shapes the site of the ethical debate that arises.

Second, docudramas are also persuasive appeals. The warranting strategies they incorporate invite examining their means of ethical persuasion. “Warrants” through a basis in common sense and logic, provide the means to allow arguments to reason from evidence to the conclusions they advocate.

Finally, U.S. movie-of-the-week docudramas function as products, produced because they are “rootable” (tied to known events), “relatable” (appealing to the core of the TV audience), and “promotable” (easy for networks to sell).

Ethical concerns grow out of the appropriateness of commodifying life stories, as well as the process of legitimizing legal, political, social, and moral issues that become viewed through the prism of commodification. In what ways does selling Saving Jessica Lynch as a movie-of-the-week docudrama serve the interests of its network, of viewers, of voters, of the Pentagon, the Bush administration, not to mention Jessica Lynch herself? NBC’s November, 2003 broadcast of Saving Jessica Lynch will, as a MOW and as an event (broadcast the Sunday night before Veterans Day; broadcast at the outset of a week of talk show appearances by Lynch to plug her book) serve as a case study to illuminate these perspectives and to suggest that the work allows for varied readings of what it advocates.

Continued: Saving Jessica Lynch as document

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