JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Originally part of a large supply convey, Lynch’s 507th Maintenance Company noncombat unit is comprised of cooks, mechanics, and clerks. Her group falls behind and tries to retrace its route. Note the visual prominance of the U.S. flag, which often appears in the film, heavily laden with connotations for U.S. television viewers.

Shots like this have a certain “realism” as they show the harsh terrain, but the images also narratively suggest the unit’s potentially dangerous isolation and precarious situation.

Even state-of-the-art GPS technology cannot get Lynch’s convey where it belongs...

... as it approaches its fateful wrong turn ...

... into the city of Nasiriyah.

As the group of vehicles enters the city, the film presents a series of shots of the inhabitants ...

that reveals the clash of two cultures.

In these images, the social environment is presented as “inscrutably” or exotically foreign and the mindset of the inhabitants as masked, unreadible.

Here the framing of the long shot suggests a sniper’s POV.

"This is all wrong."

Arena 1:
Saving Jessica Lynch
as document

Docudramas argue initially that we need to receive them as a mixture of presentational modes. Docudramas indicate their roots in actuality when they are “based on” or “inspired by” “true stories.” The “narrative of a narrative” that the assertion presents us with, that the story we’re about to see is itself “based on a true story,” signals clearly that the work before us is an adaptation, often of a well-known prior text or a publicly-known event that has been widely reported. The story Saving Jessica Lynch tells us began when the news media heavily publicized Lynch’s capture and subsequent extraction from an Iraqi hospital in late March and early April, 2003. (The reader can trace the chronological development of news stories about Jessica Lynch, through Internet sources cited in the footnotes, to recall the public “text” around her, and how her story’s connotations shifted over time.)

Initial news stories about the attack on Lynch’s convoy, her capture, and her rescue emphasized armed resistance. For example, BBC news noted that:

“‘There is as yet no clear picture of the circumstances of her capture, but intelligence suggests Private Lynch fought a heroic battle,’ U.S. officials told the Washington Post newspaper. ‘Ambushed by Iraqi forces, she continued firing back even after she had already been hit multiple times herself and had seen several other soldiers in her unit die around her,’ one official told the paper. ‘She was fighting to the death,’ the official said. ‘She did not want to be taken alive.’”[4]

The same theme of armed resistance appeared in the first reports of Lynch’s rescue:

“The troops fought their way into the hospital and whisked Lynch away on a stretcher, fighting their way out.”[5]

By mid-May, the BBC challenged the claims of the original coverage as

“one of the most stunning pieces of news management yet conceived.”[6]

For a time, the BBC pushed hard the argument that the Pentagon had “wagged the dog” in its readiness to “produce” the Jessica Lynch story as an episode in a war narrative it could shape. The BBC placed the packaging of the video of the rescue from the hospital in the context of an earlier collaboration of the Pentagon with producer/director Jerry Bruckheimer. This was a reality TV show based on a series of stories about soldiers in Afghanistan, “Profiles From the Front Line.”[7] Bruckheimer two years previously had produced Black Hawk Down (R. Scott, 2001).

NBC’s eventual adaptation limits its narrative scope to re-creating what happened to Lynch, rather than widening its view to encompass any analysis or assessment of the accompanying news coverage, the claims about the “staged” elements of the rescue, and the controversies these generated, as a documentary might about the same subject.

Even more, in this case we clearly are only partly in the realm of truth claims made by documentary, because movie-of-the-week docudramas indicate to their audiences the need to receive them as entertainment products. Docudramas enter the market place as feature films and movie-of-the-week presentations and narrate their actual material through the codes and conventions of drama and melodrama. What results is a fusion of documentary and narrative modes of presentation, and in this case in particular, a blending of the journalistic (news stories), the personal (Lynch’s and al-Rehaief’s stories), and Hollywood, movie-of-the-week stylization.

Through their basis in true stories, docudramas claim that what we are about to see on screen happened much like what transpired in actuality. The prior text(s) that provides the basis for the docudrama story will motivate the narrative’s resemblances to its referents. Consequently narrative representation re-creates as closely as possible what we know about the actuality it re-presents. In semiotic terms, docudrama’s hybridity depends upon indexical icons, re-creations that bear close, motivated resemblances to the real.[8] Docudrama’s rhetorical integrity, its validity as argument, depends entirely then on the extent to which it can substantiate the proximity it claims to its subject matter.

Arena 2: Saving Jessica Lynch as persuasive argument

Proximity strategies in docudrama provide rhetorical warrants, allowing the films to make claims about their subjects based on the data, the documentary subject matter, they re-create.[9] Docudramatic rhetoric uses several kinds of warrants to connect its presentation of its subjects to the claims the narratives forward.[10] Most predominantly, works construct models of the people, places, and events that make up their stories. Models bear directly motivated resemblances to their subject. Modeling warrants are as evident in the casting of principal parts as they are in the re-creation of key locations and the iconography of events. In this instance NBC re-created the images of Jessica Lynch that would be highly familiar to the audience for the work, including the service portrait that had appeared on news magazine covers, and the wire-service frame grab of Lynch on a cot being removed from the Iraqi hospital.

The proximity strategies docudramas employ both influence and warrant the arguments the films would forward about their subjects. With some docudramas, critics raise ethical red flags when the degree of proximity becomes questionable. While the controversies surrounding works such as JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991), Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker, 1988), and The People vs. Larry Flynt (Milos Forman, 1996) have been notorious because critics have questioned the closeness of their re-creations to the known actuality they reference, there have also been concerns raised on the same basis about The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999), The Hurricane (Norman Jewison, 1999), and A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001).[11]

In this case CBS dropped initial plans for a Lynch docudrama because of the controversy surrounding the facts of both capture and rescue. NBC’s eventual production avoided the errors of early April’s news coverage, avoided the speculative re-creation of the disputed, abusive treatment Lynch may or may not have received between capture and hospital internment, and split its viewpoint between Lynch’s conscious memory, and the account of her rescue marketed by Mohammed al-Rehaief, the Iraqi lawyer who directed the U.S. army to Lynch’s hospital room.

Continued: Saving Jessica Lynch as product


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