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Rescue overload

Movies about Jessica Lynch and Elizabeth Smart are just more media frenzy, with truth still hard to find.

November 07, 2003|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

On Sunday, CBS and NBC will air competing made-for-TV movies based on the made-for-TV rescues of a pair of imperiled young blonds. Prolonged media exposure has made colossal news engines out of captured Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch and Salt Lake City abductee Elizabeth Smart, so it's only fitting that the networks have decided to go with a BattleBot-style face-off. One dramatization should satisfy any lingering viewer need for a reprise of either tale of loss, recovery and 24-hour media saturation anyway. So it's a merciful overlap. Even before NBC's "Saving Jessica Lynch" and CBS' "The Elizabeth Smart Story" went into production, their stories had already provided enough emotional uplift to launch us all into orbit. Since Elizabeth was found with psycho-proselytizer Brian Mitchell (a.k.a. "Emmanuel") and his wife, Wanda Barzee, the Smarts have appeared on "Larry King Live," "Today," "Oprah" and "The View" and landed the cover of People magazine. The family reportedly fielded roughly 100 book, film and made-for-TV-movie proposals, and their saga has since inspired two network specials and scored a $500,000 book deal from Doubleday for "Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope," published last month. (Another book, written by Smart's uncles, Tom and Dave, is in the works. As they told the Deseret Morning News, they "had different journeys.")

After her return, Lynch signed a $1-million book deal with Alfred A. Knopf. "I'm a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story," co-written with former New York Times writer Rick Bragg, will appear in stores Tuesday, the day Lynch grants her first interview, to ABC's Diane Sawyer. Lynch will then stop by the sets of the "Today" show, David Letterman, Larry King and Fox News.

Despite all the coverage, or maybe in deference to it (what would they have left to talk about?), "Saving Jessica Lynch" and "The Elizabeth Smart Story" leave plenty to the imagination as far as their own experiences are concerned. Aside from a handful of brief flashbacks in which she is shown looking hopeful and innocent in bucolic West Virginia, Lynch (Laura Regan) is given little to do other than widen her eyes in terror and sweat expressively. It's as if "Saving Jessica Lynch" has no idea what to do with Pfc. Lynch before saving her. Her only evident traits are a desire to become a teacher, a shortage of funds and a longing for home triggered by the sight of camels.

Lynch, who said she did not remember much of what happened to her after her unit took a wrong turn and was ambushed outside Nasariyah, did not participate in the making of the movie. Screenwriter John Fasano based the story on news reports, which grew increasingly contradictory. What began as a Bruckheimer-esque tale of an ambushed soldier bravely voiding her weapon into the enemy after being shot and stabbed -- original drafts of the script were based on a Washington Post story that turned out to be not so much based in fact as "inspired by actual events" -- devolved into the somewhat less dramatic story of an ambushed soldier whose Humvee crashed into a 5-ton truck. The "so-called hospital" of Donald Rumsfeld's withering scorn where she was taken turned out to be -- well, a hospital. Later, Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks said that Pfc. Lynch was not rescued so much as she was "retrieved."

So the movie winds up taking more pot shots at the armed forces than Lynch ever took at Fedayeen soldiers. In one scene, Lynch's commander is shown giving a rousing speech to her supply unit. "We change the tires," he says. "Supply the toilet paper. The fuel. The food. The maintenance for the American fighting machine. Without us, it doesn't run." Next thing you know, Lynch's unit's global positioning system is melting down in the middle of the Iraqi desert.

No wonder "Saving Jessica Lynch" kicks off with a disclaimer stating that "some characters, scenes and events in whole or in part have been created for dramatic purposes."

A few days ago, promos for the coming Diane Sawyer special on rival ABC started blaring, "They said she couldn't remember. They were wrong!" Then Sawyer went on the air Thursday to say the new book includes a medical record suggesting Lynch was sexually assaulted. Certainly a disturbing revelation -- and one that Lynch tells Sawyer in the interview she does not remember -- but not one available to those tasked with bringing her experiences to the small screen.

As it stands, Lynch comes across as a nullity in her own story. The movie's producers eventually acquired story rights from Mohammed al-Rehaief (Nicholas Guilak), the Iraqi lawyer who informed American soldiers of Lynch's whereabouts. Any doubts that this movie belongs to him should be dispelled by his heroic good looks and his breezy fashion sense under fire. At one point, his wife blames his mother for "[poisoning his] mind with all those John Wayne movies." Personally, I would have blamed Details magazine.

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