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John Paul Times II
CBS's Biography of the Late Pope Has a Life That ABC's Lacks

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 1, 2005

Any crime-show fan knows about "good cop, bad cop." The networks, in their self-defeating inscrutability, are playing "good pope, bad pope" -- although not in that order. ABC and CBS have scheduled film biographies of Pope John Paul II to air in the nights ahead, with CBS at least being able to say that its film was announced first.

Steering clear of such wordplay as "pope-pourri" isn't easy, but rendering a verdict on the films is a no-brainer: ABC's is bad, and CBS's is not just good but aglow, a kind of thinking viewer's holiday ornament. If you see only one pope movie this month, and that ought to be enough, CBS's "Pope John Paul II" is by far the wiser choice.

A disclaimer at the top of ABC's "Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II" labels it a "dramatization" based on "events" in the pope's life. It might indeed be based on events, but calling it a dramatization is a whopper. To be a dramatization, it would have to contain drama. Even though the life of the Polish pope, who died April 2, obviously is loaded with dramatic potential, the film (airing tonight at 8 on Channel 7) seems listlessly uninterested in exploring it.

The whole thing, not just its dialogue, has the stiffness of rhetoric and the rigidity of dogma, extremely unfortunate in that John Paul was praised for the many ways he made the pope a more accessible, activist, pliant sort of fellow. Putting "fear" in the title was an ironic touch, because the producers approach the story timidly, taking pains to avoid controversy and making the papal portrait so bland that its remarkable hero is reduced to the dimensions of the proverbial guy next door -- sort of like the neighbor half-glimpsed in "Home Improvement."

Three actors play the man born Karol Wojtyla within the first 15 minutes of ABC's movie -- one as a tot, one as a teenager, and then Thomas Kretschmann as the grown-up Wojtyla. Playing pope is always risky business -- something about those robes turns actors to stone -- and Kretschmann seems simply scared stiff. His John Paul displays little warmth or wit -- qualities for which the real pope was celebrated -- and ages awkwardly. About the only time Kretschmann shows any vigor is when scolding Archbishop Oscar Romero (Joaquim de Almeida) for allegedly "preaching Marxism" and "splitting the church" in El Salvador.

Previous films by director Jeff Bleckner, incidentally -- and incidental he is -- include an excellent group biography of the Beach Boys. Except for a moving montage at the end of "Have No Fear" (the final image is a dilly) and a few small touches, the movie is infected with a dolorous diffidence. Even the re-created assassination attempt in 1981 has little impact.

A subsequent scene, in which John Paul visits the would-be assassin in his cell and tells him, "God loves you," does have welcome emotional punch. It's a pity that hardly any other scenes equal it. The film is less dramatization than recitation, opening with the pope's visit to the Mideast in 2000 and then flashing back to his boyhood, the early death of his mother, his dabbles in theater, the Nazi invasion of Poland, the Communist takeover, his decision to become a priest, his rise within the hierarchy, and so on.

The movie is more or less obligated to touch upon the ugly scandals involving child abuse by priests that have plagued the church. Told of the allegations, the pope declares, "There is no place in the priesthood for those who would harm the young." And that's that.

The ABC and CBS films portray John Paul as a progressive who brought much-needed modernization to the church; they avoid what some considered his reactionary views on birth control, abortion, gay rights and other hot topics. But there's no need to make either film a shopping list of controversies. Besides, CBS's film gets into weightier issues, matters that are genuinely spiritual, and explores them intelligently. It's provocative but in a deeper way than is usual for a TV movie.

"Pope John Paul II" (airing Sunday night at 9 and Wednesday night at 8 on Channel 9) divides the role in two, with Cary Elwes playing Karol "Lolek" Wojtyla for most of Part 1 and Jon Voight taking over early in Part 2, just after Wojtyla, then 58, is elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

Writer-director John Kent Harrison uses the assassination attempt to frame the story, so Voight appears before Elwes does. Getting into flashbacks is mainly a matter of choosing which tattered old cliches one wants to use, but Harrison does it with inventiveness, a signal that the film will be much more artful than ABC's dry downer. CBS got guidance and a seal of approval from the Vatican, but if that implies the film will be all scrubbed and syrupy, it's anything but. ABC's film profiles a historical figure, while CBS gives us a portrait of a real human being.

Elwes leaves his pretty-boy image way behind with an engaging and robust portrayal of Wojtyla as a young man who loses his mother, father and brother before he is 20 and must stand by helplessly, for the most part, as his beloved Poland is overrun with Nazis.

While ABC's film depicts the Nazis as an inconvenience, "Pope John Paul II" makes palpable the panic gripping the Poles as the Nazis approach and then occupy their country. Wojtyla is sitting in a Krakow classroom in 1939 when soldiers burst in, rip a cross off the wall and drag away the teacher. His last words to his students as he is carried off: "Do not forget who you are!" This has tremendous resonance throughout the film, especially when, as pope, Wojtyla returns to his native land and lends support to the Solidarity movement and leader Lech Walesa.

Although it might strike some as a token, "some of my best friends are" gesture, one of the pope-to-be's best childhood friends is in fact Jewish, and Wojtyla is as opposed to anti-Semitism as he is to fascism and, later, communism. The two men have a reunion in Rome as aging adults that is one of the film's most emotionally rewarding scenes.

The script is unusually successful at communicating the meaning of being spiritually gifted, portraying Wojtyla as earnest and moral without turning him into a goody-goody. His inspirations include the Polish archbishop (played by James Cromwell) who tells him, "This is the highest form of religion: to give hope to those who have none." Imaginative casting brings back some once-familiar faces not seen frequently in recent years. Ben Gazzara shows a heretofore untapped dignity as an elderly Vatican secretary and Christopher Lee, so frequently a menacing figure, is a sweetheart in the role of a Polish cardinal.

But the revelation is Voight, who of course has kept very busy as an actor in recent years, whether having a hammy old time in the ridiculous "Anaconda" or biting Kramer's arm on an episode of "Seinfeld." The man who immortalized Joe Buck, the two-bit hustler of "Midnight Cowboy," shows yet another side as the adult pope, able to make him a man of extraordinary generosity when it comes to sharing his passion for life. Restless for quests and causes, Voight's John Paul is agonized when infirmities restrict him, and these scenes are achingly poignant.

There's a comic side, meanwhile, to sequences in which Leonid Brezhnev and other commie muck-a-mucks wrestle with the thorny problem that the Polish pope presents for them, especially when he voices his empathy for Walesa. "Bringing communism to Poland," one of the bureaucrats groans, "is like trying to saddle a cow."

It is said of Wojtyla, during a Vatican conference in the 1960s, that he has "a remarkable talent to reach people," and we see this in Voight's eyes, expressions, in his every gesture. This kind of infectiousness isn't easy to convey without using cheap tricks that are the equivalent of licking the audience's face. Voight somehow combines stature and cuteness.

Although shot on a lavish scale in Italy, Poland and elsewhere, "Pope John Paul II" succeeds on intimate terms even when troops are marching or huge crowds are filling St. Peter's Square, and Elwes and Voight are largely responsible. The movie is honestly and actually about something -- about a man, yes, and about the value of belief, but also about that "remarkable talent" the pope has. It's the ability to instill joy in human hearts, and the film not only celebrates it but, in its finest moments, even possesses it.

Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II airs tonight at 8 on Channel 7.

Pope John Paul II will air Sunday at 9 p.m. and Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Channel 9.

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