WELL, NOW WE'VE seen the movie, and we have a few post-PBS observations to make on the legendary "Death of a Princess." It was gripping all right, but it didn't seem to us to be nearly so much about the Saudis or their culture as about questing, romanticized post-Watergate journalism, just a tad self-congratulatroy around the edges -- the reporter as dogged, upright, head-scratching hero.
There is a certain irony in this. It was surely one large message of the film that the reporter-hero was pursuing an ultimately elusive and "covered-up" truth: the facts of what really happened that led to the public execution for adultery of the young Saudi princess and her lover. And he was foiled, defeated at the end by the story that got away. But this saga of the straight-ahead journalist was itslef put in the service of a fictionalized version of both the princess's baleful story and his own. So it was in the first place, fiction about fact.
Or, almost fiction. Our sense of it was that there was at least as much drama as docu to this thing and that is at once what made it entertaining to watch and questionable as journalism. There is a subtlety, some would say a corruption, in this technique that clearly confounded and enraged the Saudis who so bitterly protested the film. They found themselves in the same place as fallen former administrations, Vietnam vets and any number of others who have been characterized in half-true/half-invented tones as heavies of one kind or another. Verisimilitude gives a gloss of surface credibility to all sorts of things that didn't really happen. No one can quite disentangle the facts from the fiction. This kind of slurring of large classes of people goes back at least to the old Cowboy and Indian films and has its latest incarnation in some of the films portraying Viet vets as nothing but a bunch of savage junkies.
American cultural history is full of examples of ehtnic and other groups organizing to protest and in some way curtail their depiction in films and on TV in disparaging or belittling ways. And, of course, periodically their efforts cross the line from protest to efforts at supression. The film "Cruising," to take a recent case, charged with distorting the reality of homosexual life, actually produced from gay groups much protest and effort at suppression. And, as in the Saudi case, an argument continues as to whether the protesters were doing, or trying to do, violence to the constitutional rights of others.
Our last word is this: it was right (after the uproar, actually necessary) to go ahead and show it, the film was diverting as thrillers go, it obviously mixed reality and fiction in a way that no one can entirely sort out, it hit hard on stereotypes and probably reinforced some of the less reliable of them along with those that may have some stronger basis in real life. That, anyway, seemed to be pretty much what the august assemblage of post-movie commentators thought. It was good that PBS gave them the chance to say it.