Patriotism and network television, like
patriotism and country music, make rather boring and predictable
bedfellows — when it comes to the combination of the two, it
is really the “docudrama”-drama of the past two weeks
that has proven strange.

Kate Green

On Nov. 4, Michael Paranzino, the founder of BoycottCBS.com,
issued a statement announcing his triumph against Hollywood:
network executives had pulled the CBS miniseries “The
Reagans.” Shocked and infuriated after reading Oct. 26
excerpts from the script and reports about the miniseries filed by
Matt Drudge (at DrudgeReport.com), Paranzino bought the
“boycottcbs” URL. He began a grassroots, e-mail-based
campaign against the network with the aim of keeping the series off
the air.

The miniseries’ script included many controversial and
admittedly screenwriter-invented “Reagan” quotations.
There is one scene in which Reagan tearfully announces, “I am
the Antichrist” (a strong pronouncement, but not intended in
its context to be taken as a literal declaration); in reference to
victims of AIDS, the series writers thought the fabricated line
“they that live in sin shall die in sin” would work as
a statement keeping with the former president’s character.
Unsurprisingly — and understandably — the
Reagan-devotees of this country who caught wind of the
network’s plans were less than pleased. Paranzino took it
upon himself to lead their fight from his personal computer.

On Saturday, The New York Times ran an article, “The Man
Who Would Save Reagan From A TV History,” that chronicled
this stay-at-home-dad’s fight against what he refers to, in
that Nov. 4 statement, as “the out of touch liberals in
Hollywood.” He became “a staple on the Fox News
Channel,” and proved himself, keeping with true Reagan
values, a man of the people by qualifying the terms of his boycott
— people shouldn’t boycott CBS altogether, he said,
only the miniseries, “because people like ‘Everybody
Loves Raymond’ and football games.”

In his online statement, Paranzino wrote that “It should
not have taken threats of a boycott to wake up corporate America to
the fact that Americans are sick and tired of vicious lies
masquerading as entertainment.”

But what happens when those “lies masquerading as
entertainment” are not so vicious?

Last night, NBC ran its own docudramatic take on (much more
recent) American history. “Saving Jessica Lynch,” tells
the story of the military rescue of 19-year-old Lynch from behind
Iraqi enemy lines. Granted, it could have been a lot worse. It
could have been a more aggressive vehicle for trying to perk up an
American public demoralized about our country’s bungled
invasion and now occupation of Iraq (this is, however, what the
star-spangled commercials implied it would be).

Except for a scene in which Lynch is hit by her captors, the
movie avoids many of the questionable claims that surrounded the
breaking of the story — including those that Lynch had been
shot, stabbed, tortured and even sodomized. Instead, because it is
based on his memoir “Every Life is Precious,” it really
tells the story of Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, the Iraqi lawyer who
led the American soldiers to the hospital where Lynch was being
held.

But, as with CBS’s “The Reagans,” and as is
inevitable with all historical pseudo-non-fiction, it is impossible
that everything the characters say and do in the movie even closely
resembles what actually happened. What is more, many of the most
fundamental assumptions this movie makes about the events it
describes have been seriously challenged.

There is a scene in which the Americans, led by al-Rehaief,
ambush the Iraqi hospital rather valorously. That this
dramatization is implicitly exalted as an action of collective
American courage, however, would seem to presume that the action as
executed was well-done or that it was necessary — it may have
been neither. Harith al-Houssona, a physician who cared for Lynch
in the hospital, had arranged for an ambulance to take her to the
Americans two days earlier. The ambulance was attacked by the
American military and forced to turn back.

We also have to ask whether this movie represents the military
action as well as the military action fancied itself a movie. On
May 15, the BBC reported hospital physician Anmar Uday as saying
“(The ambush) was like a Hollywood film. They cried
‘go, go, go,’ with guns and blanks without bullets …
They made a show for the American attack on the hospital —
action movies like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan.” How
could we expect NBC to match those “production values?”
Hollywood, it seems, took its cue all too readily and obediently
from the military spectacle.

“The Reagans” was yanked because it portrayed an
American president in a negative light, often with grounding only
in screenwriter creativity. But what does it mean when we’re
complacent with watching a story of American heroism that is, on
some level, also fabricated? The situation, on a level, makes
sense, but we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity for figuring
out exactly what we’re doing with our cinematic
patriotism.

If I was looking for a compromise (or a whole other set of
problems) this weekend, maybe I should have just settled with
another of CBS’s sweeps-month efforts: last night’s
“The Elizabeth Smart Story.”

Hanink can be reached at
“mailto:jhanink@umich.edu”>jhanink@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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