Heart-tugging made-for-TV movies about plucky accident victims are as common on cable as Tony Little infomercials. But Women in Cable & Telecommunications has picked a pair of A&E Network projects to honor with its Tribute Accolade. The two films grapple with themes of independent women struggling with unpredictable and volatile external forces in ways that Hollywood often shuns because the endings are so inconclusive.
The Brooke Ellison Story, about the struggles of a paralyzed young girl, featured a resilient protagonist who may remain in the public eye for years to come, as well as the direction of the late Christopher Reeve. Documentary Bearing Witness, from Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A.), profiles five female journalists who are covering wars while facing professional and personal issues unique to women.
Ellison has some towering challenges of her own. After being hit by a car as a child, she was plugged into a respirator. But that hasn't stopped her from setting some rather lofty goals: the Harvard University graduate is taking some time off from her pursuit of a doctorate degree in order to run for a New York State Senate seat on Long Island.
“I want to restore hope and optimism to politics,” says Ellison. She explains that the core message of the film — that anyone can ultimately exert control over their lives — is something that she's trying to apply to the rest of her life as well.
Ellison believes the real beauty of the film was how accurately and affectingly it conveyed the frustration, elation and spirit of her loving — but difficult — relationship with her mother, Jean.
“My situation wasn't what [the film] was about,” she says. “It was more about what people can accomplish when families bond together to overcome dire circumstances.”
Reeve died two weeks before the movie's October 2004 debut, but all involved agreed his direction kept the film from becoming maudlin and predictable, more a story about two strong women than a sudser about a victim in a wheelchair.
“Chris was a very, very bright guy and not a sentimental guy,” says executive producer Delia Fine. She notes that the film did not shy away from examining the stark reality of the disabled life — the frustrating difficulties of performing mundane tasks that most people take for granted.
In particular, Fine recalls the scene when Jean and Brooke get ready for school very early in the morning, which captured the physical process that entailed. “I just loved the determination Brooke had, her love of learning. I was so struck by Brooke's determination to get back to school. This is a girl who just loved learning stuff.”
Critics also credited Reeve's direction and passion for elevating the film.
“Reeve had broader experience in a wider array of movies. He knew how to keep it a soft portrayal,” says Roger Catlin, a critic for the Hartford Courant.
Bearing Witness didn't tug at the heartstrings, as it examined the lives of women covering the war in Iraq and other hot spots.
“A lot of times with war you get the same story over and over. This was one that really had been ignored — how journalists had been faring on the war front. One story is more interesting than the next,” Catlin says.
The five women portrayed in the documentary include a veteran Cable News Network photojournalist; an American reporter for news channel Al-Jazeera; a photographer who had been held in Abu Ghraib prison; a London Sunday Times reporter who lost an eye in Sri Lanka; and another Sunday Times writer who is facing a painful choice between her career and her personal life.
“It was interesting to look at it through these women's eyes,” says executive producer Nancy Dubuc, who heads A&E's nascent Indie Films division. “When you're on the front lines of war that discussion [on balancing work and private life] becomes much different. The sacrifices you are making are of a completely different perspective.”
Bearing Witness chronicles more than just the obstacles of wartime news coverage. Sometimes the enemy is a producer back home who clips attempts at nuanced reporting into sound-bite journalism. “It takes time to tell all sides of a story completely and accurately. A lot of them are struggling with their ability to tell the story and reach the masses outside of the sound bite,” Dubuc notes.