Controversial depictions of romance, heroism, anti-Communism and molestation scandals are part of two new biopics on the life of Pope John Paul II.
When TV networks pursue the same ideas they typically pretend otherwise. But there was unambiguous rivalry as ABC and CBS rushed their movies through production after John Paul’s death April 2.
Now they’re airing almost head-to-head: ABC’s two-hour “Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II” at 8 p.m. EST on Thursday, and CBS’s two-part “Pope John Paul II” at 9 p.m. Sunday and the following Wednesday at 8.
Both productions portray a remarkable man who worked with Christian colleagues to outlast brutal tyranny under both Nazis and Communists, preaching resolute resistance without descending to terrorism. He then became one of history’s great popes.
Neither film measures up to the Hallmark Channel’s “A Man Who Became Pope,” a four-hour European epic that aired in August. But both new films are lavishly produced, well-acted and eminently watchable for believer and skeptic alike.
ABC’s effort, filmed in Lithuania and Rome, casts Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Hosenfeld in “The Pianist”) as Wojtyla. It suffers from cramming vast material into limited time, with the tale jerking along from one vignette to the next.
CBS’s more leisurely pace allows storytelling flow and narrative context. Filmed in Poland and Rome, it also benefits from Academy Award winner Jon Voight’s portrayal of John Paul from his elevation to his death.
However, it’s disconcerting that CBS has Cary Elwes (Dr. Lawrence Gordon from “Saw”) playing Wojtyla as an adult through the conclave that made him pope. All of a sudden, Voight materializes as the brand-new pope on the balcony overlooking St. Peters Square.
CBS sought and received Pope Benedict XVI’s blessing at a Nov. 17 screening, while ABC emphasizes that it proceeded without Vatican assistance. For the most part that makes little difference — but three ABC scenes will spark debate.
Debatable claims, and kisses?When Polish workers rise against their Communist overlords and Soviet troops mass near the border, ABC has John Paul notifying the Kremlin that if it invades Poland, “I will relinquish the throne of St. Peter and stand at the barricades with my fellow Poles.” There’s no evidence for that implausible claim.
CBS avoids such mythological heroics, but perpetuates the equally debatable claim that after meeting President Reagan in private, John Paul reported that “we decided to work together” against Communism.
Second, ABC has John Paul berating El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero over his Marxist-tinged theology, then being stricken with guilt after a right-wing death squad murders Romero. Third, when America’s molestation scandal erupts in 2002, an aide says “they accuse you too” and John Paul replies, “I accept this criticism.... I have asked for forgiveness.”
There’s no corroboration for either incident.
Though most previous popes were cloistered young adults, Wojtyla was a handsome amateur actor at university, and all three TV depictions toy with his relationships to women.
The Hallmark Channel had Wojtyla kiss a woman, but only to fool Nazi soldiers. ABC’s racier Wojtyla delivers a warm kiss to a classmate, but she says no liaison is possible because she’s Jewish. With CBS, Wojtyla walks arm in arm with a woman, but says he’s too occupied with Nazi occupation to think of romance.
The most intriguing bit, plausible but hard to prove, is on CBS:
Warsaw’s indomitable Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who was incarcerated by both Hitler and Stalin, omits Wojtyla on his list of bishop candidates submitted to the Polish Communists for approval. The regime rejects all names on the list and Wojtyla becomes a bishop at a notably young 38.
Did Wyszynski bypass Wojtyla as too naJive about Communism, or too liberal on church issues? Or did he know his endorsement would be the kiss of death and purposely plot to make sure Wojtyla became a bishop?
The question lingers after the credits fade.