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November 10, 2003


America's White Sweethearts: The TV Movie Versions +

america's white sweethearts

Fittingly, last night featured the movie-of-the-week versions of the Jessica Lynch and Elizabeth Smart stories. Each movie does a disservice to its subject, as both Jessica and Elizabeth are portrayed as spineless, wide-eyed blonde waifs cast adrift in a scruffy-bearded sea of troubles. Since TV movies tend to glorify their subjects, this treatment was surprising. Rather than focus on the courage that each woman must have had to get through her experience, the movie plays up their helplessness and concentrates instead on the tireless efforts of the men who worked to rescue their damsels in distress.

Jessica has about 10 lines of dialogue in her movie, and spends most of it on her back, looking scared as hell, shaking and sweating her way through two hours of primetime until some burly male soldiers show up to haul her home and she gets her moment in the spotlight with her now-famous confused tagline, "I'm an American soldier, too," uttered as if to reassure herself of that fact and to pre-emptively establish her courage and patriotism to all the viewers back home, especially since the movie presents very little evidence of her being a soldier. It is the Iraqi lawyer who risks everything, including his family, to save Jessica who gets most of the attention here. His wife is depicted as resisting his efforts and chastising him for his stupidity, and yet she saves the day towards the end by correcting the errors her husband made on the map he prepared for the US soldiers. She's given short shrift, though: unlike her husband, she doesn't earn so much as a handshake from the US commander after Jessica's been saved and everyone is patting each other on the back.

Meanwhile on another channel, you could watch Elizabeth go along with whatever her unkempt captors asked her to do, and again, we don't get the impression that she formed much of a mental or physcial resistance, besides occasionally sucking her teeth or glaring at them disdainfully when they weren't looking, as if she were just along for the ride on an unpleasant vacation with some overbearing parents. Emmanuel and Wanda Barzee are well-played and menacing, and are the only characters in either movie that viewers can really understand psychologically, which is odd, since they are also the most demented. Dylan Baker, as Elizabeth's father, Ed, adds a touch of Kafka to the role as he finds himself trapped in a hero/victim role in which no one will listen to anything he says. During the sequences when this is most evident (the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping and, much later, the fallout from Mary-Katherine's remembering Emmanuel), it's impossible not to be a little sickened by the plodding and misguided response of the police as they fail to do anything at all to bring Elizabeth home. As I've mentioned before, nearly the only person who really seemed to do anything at all to bring her home was Emmanuel, who voluntarily returned to Salt Lake after receiving a message from God. Though Mary Katherine's sudden recollection of Emmanuel's face is crucial, too, the movie plays her older than she really was, which slightly undermines the quasi-miraculous nature of her remembering, after so long, who she saw abduct her sister. Nonetheless, the movie seems to frame her as more of a hero than Elizabeth herself.

From a technical point of view, the Jessica movie is the better of the two. Its narrative made sense, and the shots are unobtrusive but occasionally noticeably good, as during the presented-without-commercial-interruption initial battle scene. Although it is highly derivative of Black Hawk Down, the sequence is well done and presents an image of the battle that I hadn't really envisioned. Having said that, I have no idea if anything the movie says happened actually happened. Was there actually a school bus blocking their way? Were there snipers on rooftops? Will we ever know, now that this movie has replaced the official version of events (which was already built on lies and half-truths)? The Elizabeth movie was a mess narratively and photographically. The director couldn't decide what style he wanted to pursue, and his inconsistency muddles the whole movie. There is one ridiculous extreme-wide-angle shot of Dylan Baker next to a police officer that looks ripped out of a film school assignment on German expressionism. Later, as Elizabeth makes her one attempt to escape, blurry stop-motion shots supposedly convey her panic Predator-style, though it would have been much more effective to just show her running through the woods at full speed. There are story-telling gaps, too. The movie fails to explain why Emmanuel decides to return to Salt Lake or the degree to which Elizabeth wwas brainwashed. In fact, the brainwashing gets almost no treatment at all, which (besides the missing sexual assaults Amy mentions below) is probably the movie's most glaring omission. Each movie's style might be interpreted as a metaphor for the events they depict, however. The Jessica movie is very competently and precisely engineered, much like the mission that rescued her, whereas Elizabeth got a sloppily rendered movie that is similar to the chaotic, inconsistent, and misconceived investigation into her disappearance.

Last week, we heard that Elizabeth wanted to play herself in the movie and was disappointed that she couldn't. Maybe this is the ultimate direction of all made-for-TV-movies based on such events: instead of merely re-enacting a dramatized version of events, producers should hire all the actual original participants to recreate their personal trauma for the cameras, sort of blending the TV movie with a reality show. And then this time, if Emmanuel could convince Elizabeth to marry him of her own free will (no brainwashing or threatening of family members allowed!), the happy couple would get One Million Dollars.

Anyway, here's my earlier post on the topic of Elizabeth Smart and Jessica Lynch. -adm

Some other thoughts: I was not enough of an American to sit through the Jessica Lynch story and all the Do You Love Your Country, Soldiers? speeches delivered by TV Army officials, but I was struck by the "getting kidnapped is SUCH a bummer" attitude projected by the kidnapped Elizabeth Smart in her movie of the week. She was also characterized as being more crafty and self-aware than I think the real girl was during the later part of her captivity--she certainly doesn't fight for her own liberation, but also didn't appear to be as totally without an identity as she was reported to be when she was found. However, recent interviews with the real Elizabeth Smart are pushing the idea that everything has gone back to normal, it's almost like it never happened at all, so our viewing public might not want to be reminded that this girl was very successfully brainwashed, and complied totally with her creepy captors.

Also, Whiskas points out that the sexual violence inflicted on these subjects was also absent from their respective movies. Why? Would America be less sympathetic of its sweethearts if they were identified clearly as rape victims? Do we not want to revere damaged goods? Perhaps especially in the case of E. Smart (since J. Lynch says she can't remember any sexual abuse,) this is a major element of her captivity. Maybe it's just as important that she be presented as pure in the eyes of the public as it is that she is "pure in the eyes of God," as her minister insists. -amy

categories: Culture
posted by adm at 9:17 AM | #


Well would you have LIKED to see scenes of sexual abuse in the movie? Good grief. Most people who watched it were probably glad that wasn't portrayed. The Smarts helped with the movie so that Elizabeth would not be exploited, and putting the sexual abuse in the movie would certainly have been exploitive.

Posted by: Lacee at September 10, 2007 7:15 PM

Come on. We're not THAT sick. Audiences don't need to see actual depictions of sexual abuse, but the fact that Elizabeth Smart was almost definitely sexually abused by her captors was not referenced at all in the movie. It's one of the most horrific aspects of her captivity, so I think it's notable that it was completely edited out of the TV movie version of her experience.

Posted by: amy at September 11, 2007 11:35 AM

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