Dueling Network Popes

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

BY: Charlotte Allen


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There are powerful scenes in the ABC film, such as an episode in which the young Wojtyla's philosophy professor is lecturing on Plato's theory that the world is an illusion-until the class is interrupted by some very real invading German planes flying overhead. A few years later, after the Soviets have replaced the Nazis as Poland's oppressors, the brilliant Wojtyla, already auxiliary bishop of Krakow although still in his 30s, decides to say a Christmas midnight Mass in the communist "new town" of Nowa Huta, a high-rise workers' paradise from which churches have been banned. Then, when the government sends out troops to prevent more than a handful of residents from attending the service, Wojtyla prays, and the commander relents, allowing thousands of faith-starved Poles to flock to the outdoor altar. The camera pans to the face of a young soldier who is making the sign of the cross. It is a riveting evocation of Wojtyla's power to effect a bloodless revolution in Eastern Europe by summoning forth the combination of religious and patriotic fervor that the Soviets, for all their tanks and guns, could not kill.

The CBS series covers the same material, often more elaborately, but it skips over Wojtyla's childhood and treats his skirmishes with the Nazis and the communists mostly as dramatic cat-and-mouse games. Part of the problem is Elwes, who is too hearty and hale-fellow-well-met to convey Wojtyla's intense spirituality convincingly.

When Voight takes over the lead role in the second half of the CBS series, however, he outshines Kretschmann. The latter is simply too introverted an actor (and the two-hour ABC film too brief) for the epic and public scope of John Paul's long papacy, which encompassed not only the end of the Cold War but an assassination attempt in 1981, unprecedented travels to every corner of the world (including a historic visit to Israel in 2000), and an equally unprecedented effort to bring into the mainstream of Catholicism the burgeoning Catholic populations of Latin America and Africa. By contrast, Voight, a Catholic himself who studied John Paul's filmed gestures and read his voluminous writings in preparation for the role, brilliantly captures John Paul's combination of gravitas and a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor, which endeared him to audiences, especially young people. (One high point of the CBS series features a Vatican power breakfast at which John Paul is distracted by the disappearance of a piece of cheese he has dropped.) As John Paul is racked by Parkinson's disease and a crippling fall during the last years of his papacy, Voight seems to shrink literally into the frailty and near-paralysis that culminated in that single, silent, helpless gesture of his last public appearance at the window of the Vatican a few days before his death.

Still, the CBS series has a plodding, dutiful quality as it treks through John Paul's papacy, and I found myself saying: Well, it's now 1983--only 22 years to go. The problem is that neither the CBS nor the ABC dramatizations come to terms with the fact that John Paul fought three enemies: Nazism, Communism, and what he called the "culture of death" endemic in the prosperous, secularized, authority-despising West.

Both dramatizations cover the first two of those battles while alluding to the third only through brief mentions of "materialism," "consumerism," and "pornography." But these are only the tip of the iceberg of the self-satisfied culture--determined to do exactly as it likes, especially in matters pertaining to sex--against which John Paul continued to preach the age-old teachings of the Church. Many people loved him, but he also had enemies inside and outside the Catholic Church who loathed him as much as any Soviet functionary for his refusal to accommodate to worldly mores. They worked to undermine him, and openly gloated over his final weakness and disorientation. While both ABC and CBS successfully present a reverent and respectful picture of a great and holy man, both dramatizations fail to do justice to the central drama of his papacy, a drama that continues into the reign of his successor--opposition to the direction in which Western culture has gone.

So if I were Benedict, I'd give both televised versions of Pope John Paul II's life my blessing--but I'd make it a qualified blessing.

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