Finding Reality in Fiction: 'Over There'

Commentator Leroy Sievers, a former Nightline producer, says Steven Bochco's new TV drama about the frontlines in Iraq raises an important question: Can a fictional account of war do a more effective job of showing the public the realties of life for soldiers and Iraqi civilians than the news can?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The lives of fictional American soldiers in Iraq will be the subject of a new TV series. "Over There" begins tomorrow, 10 PM, on the FX cable network. The televised depiction of violence is on the mind of commentator Leroy Sievers, a former executive producer of "Nightline."

LEROY SIEVERS:

Years ago, I interviewed a gang member in Los Angeles. He was maybe 13 or 14, and he was saying how disappointed he was the first time he shot someone. They didn't go flying back in slow motion, blood spurting in all directions. Hollywood had promised him more.

For most people, the movies are as close to the violence of war as they're ever going to get. In World War II movies like the "Sands of Iwo Jima," when soldiers died, it was relatively bloodless.

(Soundbite of "Sands of Iwo Jima")

Unidentified Man #1: Good luck, Sarge.

Mr. JOHN WAYNE: (As Sergeant John M. Stryker) Charlie, give me a hand here!

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SIEVERS: Real men were dying real deaths by the thousands and there were limits on what people at home could bear to see. More recent war movies, like "Saving Private Ryan," are about as graphic as anyone could hope or fear.

(Soundbite of "Saving Private Ryan")

Unidentified Man #2: I'll see you on the beach!

SIEVERS: The newer movies are separated from the wars they depicted by years. How long after the pain of war subsides does watching a realistic show about war become a way to spend an evening? We're about to find out, with a new TV series on the Iraq War, "Over There."

(Soundbite of "Over There")

Unidentified Man #3: Get the hell down!

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #4: I think somebody maybe got shot up there, sir.

SIEVERS: Will the American public, increasingly disenchanted with the war in Iraq, want to see a fictional account, when they don't seem to want to watch the real thing on the news?

When I was producing "Nightline" on ABC, we decided to cover Iraq every night, and the ratings plummeted. Many news organizations are devoting less attention to events in Iraq. After years of war, how do you distinguish between one bombing and another? When we wanted to honor those who had died in Iraq by reading their names and showing their pictures on "Nightline," we were criticized for making a political statement. All we wanted to do was remind people that real men and women were dying.

In the first episode of "Over There," a soldier leaving for Iraq makes one last phone call.

(Soundbite of "Over There")

Unidentified Woman: I've seen those faces on "Nightline." And I said, `Goddamn, girl, that's me.'

SIEVERS: Talk about blurring the line between fiction and reality: A real show about real deaths in a real war is being used by a fictional show about that same real war.

Novelist Tim O'Brien, in his excellent book about Vietnam, "The Things They Carried," asks whether a fictional account can be truer to a story than a factual account. Fiction can add some gray to the black and white of journalism. The soldiers on the evening news are virtually identical figures, indistinguishable in their armor and helmets. "Over There," the fictional account, shows them as individuals. It shows what most news coverage doesn't, the sheer terror, the anger and adrenaline rush on the faces of men and women fighting for their lives.

"Over There" follows a character who is maimed by a roadside bomb and shows how the incident affects so many people for the rest of their lives. It reminds all of us that the men and women beneath the bulky body armor and helmets have lives and families and histories and dreams that for some will never come true. And maybe that's what we've been missing in our coverage of the war. Maybe that's why it's so easy for so many people to turn away from the real thing.

Seventeen hundred American soldiers are dead, thousands more wounded. Thousands of Iraqis have died. Do we shut it out because the rising toll is just too much to bear? I don't think we have that right. Any reminder, fictional or factual, deserves our attention. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming as blase about death as that young gang member in Los Angeles.

INSKEEP: Leroy Sievers is a journalist based in Washington. You can find scenes from "Over There" at npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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