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Fantasyland

A film about the rescue of Jessica Lynch is as credulous as the first reported accounts; The West Wing loses more than just its liberalism.

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Rescue Operation: Laura Regan as Jessica Lynch in the NBC drama.  

Now that we know from follow-up articles (like morning-after pills) that Pfc. Jessica Lynch was injured in a Humvee crash on the wrong side of the Euphrates during Operation Iraqi Freedom, not brutalized in her Nasiriyah captivity by barbaric fedayeen; and that the medical attention she received from Iraqi doctors and nurses was no worse than what any other patient got before an American Special Ops commando team seized Saddam Hussein hospital and choppered the 19-year-old off to obliging Kuwait—why do we need this TV movie? Aside from a single hint that the president of the United States is watching the rescue with interest, Saving Jessica Lynch (Sunday, November 9; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC) has nothing fresh to add to the story, and even omits to mention how the Pentagon played the press the first time around. It is as if the public had never been told heroic whoppers. After such spin, a waffle.

Which waffle is sufficiently fast-forward to keep us semi-alert, so long as it sticks to tanks, camels, flags, and sand; to night goggles, whirlybirds, caftans, and automatic-weapons fire. In fact, the better to mimic urban ambush as it’s been stylized by Black Hawk Down, the first 40 minutes of Saving Jessica Lynch pass without commercial interruption. Only then do we leave the side of a mostly monosyllabic Jessica (Laura Regan) for the more voluble family compound of Mohammed Al-Rehaief (Nicholas Guilak), an Iraqi lawyer who speaks English because his mother taught it at the university in Basra, who knows that a female U.S. soldier is hospitalized nearby because his wife (Susan Pari) is a nurse, and who informs the American military because he wants a better life for his daughter (Cristina Campos) than Saddam will ever provide. Once the Americans, in the person of a hard-bodied, crew-cut Michael Rooker, agree to believe Mohammed, the rest of the movie consists of flashbacks to bucolic West Virginia and commando action that’s practically unopposed.

For his helpfulness, Mohammed and his family have been resettled in the United States. There are other lessons to learn from this prime example of network television in the age of fearful pap. You will notice, early on in Saving Jessica, another female soldier, Shoshana Johnson (Denise Lee). She showed up in a real-life wire-service story over the weekend of October 26. Like Jessica, Johnson served in the 507th Maintenance Company. Like Jessica, she was injured in action—shot through both legs. Like Jessica, she was a POW—for 22 days. Unlike Jessica, Johnson is black. But according to an Army spokesman, that had nothing to do with the fact that Johnson was discharged with a 30 percent disability benefit, compared with Jessica’s 80 percent. Lynch herself supports Johnson “100 percent.” But when it comes to your very own TV movie, some people are more equal than others.


There was a time when network programs were actually permitted to have points of view; TV movies argued for or against capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion, and dramatic series addressed issues like corporate responsibility, vigilante justice, disability rights, and gun control. But that time is over; instead, from brave and edgy producers, we get plunging necklines and fellatio jokes. There are many reasons why The West Wing is no longer must-see TV in my house: With Aaron Sorkin gone, it’s become a half-speed hobbling from obvious pillar to predictable post, with long walks, slow reaction shots, repetitious flashbacks, underlined signifiers, and so much posing for postage stamps you’d think the Bartlett administration had done something, anything, except compromise and pretend to feel bad about it.

Saving Jessica Lynch has nothing fresh to add to the story. It is as if the public had never been told heroic whoppers.”

But what we are getting from The West Wing is exactly what the network thought the country wanted, after complaints all last year about the liberal sermonizing. By all means, let there be no liberal sermonizing anywhere on television, and never mind that more Americans voted in the last election for Al Gore than for George Bush, and that almost none of us bargained for a repeal of the twentieth century. No, sir. C.J. can be counted on to lose every argument of principle in the new West Wing, and Mary-Louise Parker has yet this season to say anything remotely feminist, and the best line in more than a month of Wednesdays on a program that used to be about social and economic justice instead made license-plate fun of Wisconsin cheese: Live Brie or Die. For shame.


Private Screenings: Shirley MacLaine (November 4; 8 to 9 p.m.; TCM) lets her talk with Robert Osborne about her career, and charm the rest of us before a festival of twelve of her films, from The Apartment to Irma La Douce to Two Mules for Sister Sara.

Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (November 4; 8 to 9 p.m.; Sundance) looks at what really happened in Florida, to be followed on the same channel at 11 p.m. by Off the Record, a not exactly rhapsodic account of Mark Green’s losing campaign for mayor of New York, as seen through the lens of his son, Jonah.

A Wedding in Ramallah (November 4; midnight to 1:35 a.m.; Channel 13) is what Sherine Salama ended up with after following Bassam Abed from a bad American marriage in Cleveland back to the Palestinian territories, where he meets and marries Mariam, who is glad to escape the gunfire but appalled by Cleveland.

Reporting America at War (November 5 and 12; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) listens in to what Christiane Amanpour, Peter Arnett, Homer Bigart, Malcolm Browne, Robert Capa, Walter Cronkite, Richard Harding Davis, Gloria Emerson, Martha Gellhorn, David Halberstam, Chris Hedges, Ward Just, Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle, Andy Rooney, and Morley Safer had to say on the development of American journalism and its relations with the American military.

Star Wars: Clone Wars (November 7; 8 to 8:05 p.m.; Cartoon Network) launches ten weeknight chapters of animated Jedis and Clone Troopers. For the geekiest among you.


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