Rescue overload

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.

"Saving Jessica Lynch" suffers from a severe drama deficit, but the movie does manage to ever-so-gently question the conditions that lead people like Lynch and her friend, Lori Piestewa, who was killed in the ambush, to join the Army in the first place. (Lynch did it to pay for state college, after failing to secure part-time employment at the local Wal-Mart.) But if the movie were really in it for our edification, it might have acknowledged some of the spin that whipped her experiences into the war PR they became.

Still, at least that movie was descriptively (if pretentiously) titled. "The Elizabeth Smart Story" is nothing of the sort. It is actually the story of her parents, Ed and Lois (Dylan Baker and Lindsay Frost), and their major beef with the Salt Lake City Police Department, the media, "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh (his show helped find their daughter, sure, but he betrayed Ed's confidence by blabbing to Larry King about a matter they'd discussed strictly between them), and oddly, fellow father of an abductee and television regular, Marc Klaas -- who appears as a character in the movie only long enough to be made to look kind of sleazy.

The Smarts, needless to say, collaborated in the making of this movie, which helps explain why nearly everyone else in it comes across looking so bad. In one scene, their media spokesman, Chris Thomas -- hey, he volunteered! -- advises Ed and Lois to deny a tabloid story accusing Ed and his brothers of taking part in a "gay sex ring." Otherwise, he tells them, the mainstream media might pick up the item, "and then everyone will believe it." That's the way it goes: From the Weekly World News' mouth to the New York Times' ears. Nobody wants to be accused of taking part in a "gay sex ring" in the newspaper of record, especially since nobody really knows what a "gay sex ring" is, exactly.

The Smarts' involvement also helps explain why the family appears as pure as if they had been filtered through the Lord's own Brita pitcher. The first scene shows Elizabeth strumming her harp as her mother appears in the doorway, smiling beatifically. (Here, the violins swell so alarmingly that doctors in the audience will likely want to lunge at the TV set with a syringe-full of cortisone.) This scene is followed by a shot of Mitchell haphazardly lopping off random portions of his beard in a homeless shelter, calling people "fools."

He has a point. As it is depicted in "The Elizabeth Smart Story," the Smarts' world is an affluent paradise, where moms can bring home vagrants they meet on the street without having to worry. Never mind that this particular vagrant apparently responded to her query about where he was from by saying, "My sister and I are walking the Earth, spreading the word of God." As movie-Lois says, "the church teaches us to help people down on their luck." And anyway, she tells her husband later, "he seemed like a nice man."

The film wisely leaves out the more horrifying details of the little girl's ordeal but can't seem to resist an occasional glimpse at her in captivity. We see her scrubbing dishes in the woods with what looks like a rock. We see her restrained and covered in sackcloth. We see her casting sidelong glances at her kidnapper.

But we never get a clue as to what she is thinking, why she fails to call out to the search parties when she hears them calling her name, or why she doesn't immediately leap into the arms of the police officer who first recognizes her. The only possible interpretation is that the 14-year-old Smart believed the cult-of-one leader when he claimed he could remotely annihilate her family. Judging from the lessons that the fictional Lois and Ed seem to have instilled in their kids -- talk to strangers, etc. -- it would seem at some point, her parents' cognitive equipment melted down in the middle of Utah.

*

'Saving Jessica Lynch'

Where: NBC

When: Sunday, 9-11 p.m.

Rating: The network has rated the movie TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

Laura Regan...Jessica Lynch

Michael Rooker...Col. Curry

Nicholas Giulak...Mohammed al-Rehaief

Executive producers Dan Paulson, Bob Chmiel. Director Peter Markle. Writer John Fasano.

*

'The Elizabeth Smart Story'

Where: CBS

When: Sunday, 9-11 p.m.

Rating: The network has rated the movie TV-PG-D,V (may not be suitable for young children, with advisories for coarse dialogue and violence).

Dylan Baker...Ed Smart

Lindsay Frost...Lois Smart

Amber Marshall...Elizabeth Smart

Tom Everett...Brian David Mitchell/Emmanuel

Hollis McLaren...Wanda Barzee

Executive producers Fran von Zerneck, Robert M. Sertner, Patricia Clifford, Jeff Morton. Director Bobby Roth. Writer Nancey Silvers.

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