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
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.