JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Lynch’s convey is trapped as...

the feydayeen block the street with a schoolbus and...

... ambush Lynch’s unit.

Lynch’s rifle jams. She is fearful and bewildered.

The unit’s evasive action and armed resistance ends when Lynch’s Humvee rear-ends the truck in front of it.

Feyadeen shoot wounded U.S. soldiers, but...

... they remove Lynch from the wreckage and take her to the hospital. The film’s narrative switches from depicting Lynch’s experiences to those of Mohammed al-Rehaief, whose book about this event shaped the script.

Here al-Rehaief turns his daughter’s head from the sight of a woman’s corpse being dragged through the streets. Later he directs U.S. rescuers to Lynch, held in the hospital where his wife is a nurse. He says seeing Lynch interrogated “cuts [his] heart."His wife opposes his risking his family for Lynch. He says he does so for his daughter, who on cue walks into the room.

An international media event: U.S. forces stage a dramatic rescue for the camera. Later the BBC denounces the army’s video, saying the rescue team knew the fedayeen already left. The film’s narrative keeps Lynch physically imperiled up to the point of rescue, but it accurately does not depict any kind of final shoot-out.

The film’s rescue: Note the composition, emphasizing the U.S. flag, the soldier’s strong arm, the angle down on the blonde victimized woman.

Arena 3:
Saving Jessica Lynch as product

Movie-of-the-week docudrama has been a staple of telefilm production since the 1980s. ABC, CBS and NBC invested in docudrama production through the 1990s in an effort to counter the loss of their audience to cable. What television executives, producers and writers have termed the “rootable,” “relatable,” and “promotable” qualities of docudrama properties have made the production of movies based on true stories a key strategy during sweeps periods for attracting and retaining audience. Due to its “rootable” material—the widely known, the frequently current, and the often notorious nature of its subject matter—docudrama can be convenient to promote. The desire for “relatable” material has led to narrower choices of subject matter. In marketing terms “relatability” tends to put white, middle-class, female central characters in some form of jeopardy. The preference for stories “based on” or “inspired by” actual events—often with female central characters—reflects directly the ongoing effort by both network and cable to win, recapture and maintain what they define as the core of their target audience, women between the ages of 18 and 49. In these terms, Saving Jessica Lynch represents an ideal MOW docudrama property.

To put Saving Jessica Lynch in context, a sampling of concurrent sweeps period programming illustrates the range of central characters, actual circumstances and arguments advocated in MOW docudramatic practice. During the May 2003 sweeps, just weeks after the invasion of Iraq began, U.S. networks programmed no less than seven MOW docudramas, including a two-night miniseries, Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Of the seven titles, three centered on war or war-related stories (Hitler; Out of the Ashes; and Daughter from Da Nang). Three others gave the “inside” stories of famous subjects (Lucy; Behind the Camera: 3’s Company, The Unauthorized Story; Martha Inc.) Two of the MOW docudramas coat-tailed prominent news events (Martha Inc.; Ice Bound). This typology has been typical of network MOW production for the last decade. The sampling’s emphasis on war subjects has been characteristic of sweeps docudrama programming since 2000.[12]

It should not be surprising that as rootable, relatable, and promotable products, MOW docudramas of the last several years should turn to war-related topics and visions of rescuing Americans and U.S. interests.[13] The September 11 terrorist attacks reactivated a Pearl Harbor mindset in the United States. Not surprisingly then, war docudrama suits the culture of conflict encouraged by the Bush administration subsequently. Saving Jessica Lynch argues not only that in the post-9/11 world we necessarily see rescuers (and the rescued) as heroes, but it also begs for the nobility of a war that is necessary to rescue Americans, U.S. interests, and ultimately, some sense of our identity as Americans.

This, however, is one view. Consider another. Jessica Lynch is “rescued” not simply from a desperate, life-threatening combat situation, but also from an erroneous national policy. Early in the film we see Lynch’s convoy approaching, and then entering the city of Nasiriyah. Scenes just before this have recreated the fateful, erroneous decisions to make the wrong turns that have brought the convoy to this juncture. As the heavy trucks and Humvees slowly make their way through the streets the surprised townspeople watch its progress. The U.S. soldiers nervously study the Iraqis in return. The mutual apprehension and the point of view structure build systematically, culminating in an exchange of glances between Lynch and an Iraqi man in a pick-up truck that begins to shadow the convoy. In slow motion, the man opens a cell phone and begins to speak. The convoy unsuccessfully attempts to turn around and retreat, but a school bus is pushed across the street, blocking their escape.

The film shows U.S. troops being attacked. Re-creating the attack on Jessica Lynch’s convoy also necessitates showing U.S. troops in a place they do not belong. They are, quite simply, invaders who are being attacked. Is the action then self-defense, or is it aggression? Saving Jessica Lynch invites—and warrants—divergent readings, interpretations of what it shows that both support and criticize the presence of the U.S. army in Iraq. In both views, as it offers persuasive argument the film re-creates events to provide necessary data. And it uses its re-creation of physical damage to actual individuals to warrant larger arguments about national policy and national identity.

Pentagon control over images of the war underlines the necessity of re-creating events. As much as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” has been given air time in the media, that effort to control how the war appears has been evident from the outset in “embedded” news reporting, and through the kinds of images the Pentagon itself generates (“Mission Accomplished”) or restricts. The salience of that control is perhaps most evident when it is breached—when Al-Jazeera becomes the outlet for airing footage no one else has shown, when photos of flag-draped coffins do appear in the media, and when photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib reach the light of day.

As Americans we are, Saving Jessica Lynch would argue, both our mistakes and our efforts to correct them. Other recent war docudramas such as Black Hawk Down (R. Scott, 2001) and We Were Soldiers (R. Wallace, 2001) raise the same questions, and similarly define national identity through their narratives of necessary rescue. At bottom, these are all stories of the need to rescue who and what we are as a country, a need precipitated by the decision—and the pressure—to go war. 

Should this story be told, and told this way? The selling of Jessica Lynch contributes yet another means of keeping George Bush’s war in Iraq at the forefront of public debate. While marketed to sell heroism, this docudramatic re-creation also invites the argument that both Americans and Iraqis are victims of the questionable competence of leadership.[14]As a cultural document, Saving Jessica Lynch ignores the April news ballyhoo the U.S. government welcomed originally with its erroneous reports lauding heroism under fire. Lynch’s subsequent immersion in celebrity in November, 2003—her efforts in interviews and television talk shows to correct the record on her own actions not withstanding[15]—perpetuates a sense of U.S. victimization and rationalized retaliation that has propelled Bush administration foreign and domestic policies since 9/11. Lynch herself remains a convenient emblem of violated innocence.

Notes


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