Why NBC's Jessica Lynch movie can't be saved
Fact-based TV movies pretty much always stink. They tend to fall into two categories: Tender Tales of Emotional Uplift and Grabbed-Headline Gush. ''Door to Door,'' which copped a lot of Emmys recently, is a perfect example of the first category, and Nov. 9's ''The Elizabeth Smart Story'' on CBS lands firmly in the second. NBC's competing effort, ''Saving Jessica Lynch,'' tries to combine both styles, with odious results. From its galling title (linking a squirrelly little TV flick to Steven Spielberg's majestic ''Saving Private Ryan'') to its assiduously bland storytelling (whose pathetically paradoxical purpose is to avoid controversy while cashing in on a controversial occurrence), ''Saving Jessica Lynch'' represents everything that's wrong with this genre.
It's likely that when NBC first thought of dramatizing Lynch's story, the network believed it had an irreproachable heroic saga that played into the gung ho media enthusiasm that characterized the early stages of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. The basic facts seemed to be: On April 1 of this year, Pfc. Jessica Lynch was rescued by U.S. forces, snatched from, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it, ''what they called a hospital,'' after her unit was attacked in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. At first, the story played out as a clear-cut example of American military precision, complete with the bonus of a helpless young blond woman at its center -- making it part of a venerable TV-movie subdivision: the so-called women-in-jeopardy telefilm.
But then came revisionist reporting, summed up in a little-seen BBC documentary, ''War Spin: Jessica Lynch,'' that aired here in July. This view held that the hospital was a hospital, not a front for the enemy, and that Lynch's wounds weren't stab and bullet wounds, as was first reported, but broken bones suffered when her unit's vehicle came to a crashing halt. Some say the makers of ''War Spin'' may have been duped by Baath Party loyalists, but ''Lynch'' ignores these disagreements. And, in any case, Lynch herself says she has no memory of the event. Instead, the teleplay by John Fasano (''Profiler'') relies on the assertions of Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, an Iraqi lawyer who, says the NBC press release, ''risked everything to inform the American military of Jessica's whereabouts.'' As played by Nicholas Guilak, al-Rehaief is a good egg appalled by the violence being committed by his countrymen. Again, art-deadening neutrality prevails. NBC's movie presents Lynch, embodied by Laura Regan, as having no personality other than a sunny disposition; pardon me if I assume she is more complicated than that.
Attempting to lend gravitas to melodrama, NBC says that it will bravely air ''the opening 40-minute sequence which includes the ambush...without commercial interruption.'' Gosh, sacrificing commercials for the sake of a TV movie whose initial moments include a scene in which an officer tells Jessica that some soldiers put condoms on the ends of their weapons ''when the wind's kickin' up'' -- it's clear there is nothing NBC will not do for the education of the nation. Actually, given the superficiality on display here, the network seems better equipped to mount a production of ''Saving Jessica Simpson.'' Certainly, Jessica Lynch deserves better than to become a pawn in a Sunday-night network competition, her life story up against that of another female victim. Which, of course, could have been titled ''Saving Elizabeth Smart.''