copyright 2004, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 47

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:

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.

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.

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

1. Rick Bragg, I Am A Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story. New York: Knopf, 2003.

2. See, for example, http://www.jessica-lynch.com/; http://www.disinfopedia.org/wiki.phtml?title=Jessica_Lynch; http://www.jessica-lynch.com/photos.html; http://jessicalynch.newstrove.com/; etc.

3. “Seven theses about border genres / five modest proposals about docudrama", Screening the Past, Issue 14, 2002, http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/firstrelease/fr0902/paget/dpfr14b.htm.

4. BBC News, World Edition: “Rescued POW Flown to Germany,” 4/3/2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2hi/middle_east/2908477.stm

5. CNN.com, “Rescued POW Has First Surgery,” 4/3/03, http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/South/04/03/sprj.irq.rescue

6. The Guardian Unlimited, “The Truth About Jessica,” May 15, 2003.

7. See The Guardian Unlimited, “The Truth About Jessica,” May 15, 2003, as well as Robert Scheer, “Saving Private Lynch, Take 2”
http://www.alternet.org/story/15958.

8. See Steven N. Lipkin, Real Emotional Logic: Film and Television Docudrama as Persuasive Practice (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002): 150 (note 4).

9. Lipkin 149 n. 4.

10. See Lipkin: 13; 23-27. Docudramas also will sequence the real and what it must re-create, that is, alternate between re-created and actual footage, so that the modeled material benefits from its literal closeness to documentary imagery. The interviews with Easy Company veterans that open each episode of Band of Brothers set up this strategy. For better or worse, Oliver Stone used sequencing throughout JFK as a means to augment the authenticity of the claims the film would forward. Another warranting strategy, interaction, places actual and re-created elements within the mise en scene, so that real-life principals move through scenes with actors (the real Jim Garrison in JFK), or actors move through the actual locations where the re-created events originally occurred (the Illinois State Penitentiary in Call Northside 777; the town hall with its memorial wall in Perfect Storm).

11. On The Insider, see
http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1999/11/110506.html.
On A Beautiful Mind, see The New York Times 21 Dec. 2002: “From Math to Madness, and Back.” On The Hurricane, see
http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/2000/01/010705.html.

12. Other war-related works of note aired in the three-year period since May 2000 include: Submerged; Haven; Nuremberg; Uprising; Gathering Storm; One Night in Baghdad; Daughter from Da Nang; Out of the Ashes; and Band of Brothers.

13. During the Clinton administration the U.S. public viewed the controlled effectiveness of its military in Bosnia in the face of the holocaust-like ethnic cleansing there and consequent need for war crimes tribunals. The debacle in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 underlined the impotence of the U.S. army, highlighted by images of the dragging of the corpse of an American GI through the streets.

14. In the first half of 2004 news coverage of the war in Iraq continued to attempt to grapple with the interrelation of victims, images of U.S. women in the military, and the repercussions of questionable leadership. Incidents of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib brought to the world’s attention the countless replays of photographs of Private Lyndie England “handling” Iraqi prisoners, leading to her court martial. England’s (and others’) defense, that they were following the dictates of army command structure, immediately brought attention to (and the replacement of) General Janis Karpinski, who had been in charge of the prison when the abuses occurred. Stories (and photographs) of Lynch as her hearings progressed in August, 2004 consistently refer to her advanced pregnancy, positioning England as both perpetrator and victim in this chapter of the war.

15. See “Jessica Lynch Tells Her Story,” Today/MSNBC News, November 12, 2003,
http://msnbc.msn.com/id/3475980/

for a transcript of her interview with Katie Couric. (A search on “Jessica Lynch" at msnbc.msn.com will bring up mainstream news stories that trace the trajectory of how this story became publicized in the United States.)


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