Dueling Network Popes

New biopics on ABC and CBS--broadcast the same week--portray the life of Pope John Paul II.

BY: Charlotte Allen

Jon Voight & Thomas Kretschmann
Jon Voight (CBS), left, and Thomas Kretschmann (ABC) each play John Paul II.

The duel of the network popes is upon us. On Dec. 1, ABC airs its two-hour movie "Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II." Just three days later, on Dec. 4, CBS's miniseries "Pope John Paul II" begins, and it finishes with a second two-hour segment on Dec. 7. That's a lot of John Paul II for one week, so I wish I could recommend one of these biopics over the other, but I can't. Both have their soaring strengths, but at the same time, both disappoint, although for different reasons.

The CBS series, directed by John Kent Harrison, comes blessed by Pope Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was John Paul's close friend and adviser, and who viewed the miniseries at its Nov. 17 premiere at the Vatican. That's not all it's got going for it, though. Of the two network productions, CBS's clearly had the bigger budget, and so it offers the more lavish cast and array of period settings. Plus, unlike the ABC film, for example, the CBS series doesn't just show old television footage of the Polish shipbuilders' strike of the 1980s that, with John Paul II's blessing, led to freedom and democracy for Poland and played a role in the collapse of Poland's Communist overlord, the Soviet Union. Instead, CBS gives us the Gdansk shipyards themselves (on a set), dozens of striking workers and communist heavies, and an actor who is a dead ringer for the Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa.

Most importantly, at least in terms of likely viewer draw, CBS has a major star--Jon Voight--playing John Paul II, at least for the part of the film covering his papacy, which occupied the last 26 years of his life. (Cary Elwes plays the younger Karol Wojtyla, his name before he became pope). The ABC film makes do in the lead role with Thomas Kretschmann, a fine but far lesser-known actor most famous for his supporting role as a conflicted German officer in the 2002 movie "The Pianist."

The ABC film's scale is noticeably smaller: one Swiss Guard at a Vatican doorway instead of a double row of them in the CBS series, and a handful of cardinals at the 1978 conclave that elected John Paul pope in contrast to CBS's entire roomful of red-garbed prelates in scenes of stunningly simulated authenticity actually shot inside the Sistine Chapel, where papal elections are held.

Despite such details--or maybe because of them--the ABC film, obliged to build its story via close-ups and intimate scenes, manages to capture John Paul's inner life far more effectively, at least in the film's grim first half, in which the young Karol (played as a boy by Jasper Harris and a teenager by Ignaz Survila, before Kretschmann takes over) endures the deaths of his mother, his beloved older brother, and his father. He also lives through the brutal occupation of his country by the Germans in 1939. Under Jeff Bleckner's able direction, we see Wojtyla's character forged in the crucible of loss, sorrow, and faith, as he toils as a laborer after his university is closed, joins a clandestine theater group, and watches helplessly while friends--Jews and resistance fighters--are snatched by the Nazis. Asking himself "Why did God spare my life?," he enters an underground seminary in Krakow to engage in forbidden study for the priesthood.

John Paul II's fights against Nazism, communism--and Western culture

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  • Continued on page 2: »

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