Battle of the network popes.

TV and popular culture.
Dec. 1 2005 6:08 PM

Battle of the Network Popes

CBS and ABC offer competing biopics of the late pontiff.

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Only hours after the passing of John Paul II, television producers everywhere were on the horn, scheming to throw together a quickie biopic of the century's most personable pope. Now, eight months later, two major broadcast networks are unveiling the results in an unusually bald example of copycat rivalry. ABC, betting that even the most devout viewers won't spend six hours in a week revisiting the life story of Karol Wojtyla, is trying to scoop CBS on speed alone, rushing their biopic to the airwaves tonight (8-10 ET) in the hope that audiences will be poped out by Sunday.

It's a pope's life
Click image to expand.
It's a pope's life

ABC's John Paul II is played throughout by the German actor Thomas Kretschmann, who looks like Liam Neeson after a couple of spins through the de-sexifying machine. Kretschmann (who played the Chopin-loving Nazi officer at the end of Roman Polanski's The Pianist and will appear later this month in Peter Jackson's King Kong) is neither young enough to play a passionate seminary student nor old enough to convince as a frail octogenarian. But the main flaw of Have No Fear is its length: At 2 hours, minus time for commercial breaks, it zips through 60-plus years of Wojtyla's life at a pace that manages to be both breakneck and boring.

A sly, twinkly pope 
Click image to expand.
A sly, twinkly pope

The four-hour CBS version, titled simply Pope John Paul II (beginning Sunday at 9 p.m. ET and continuing on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m. ET) boasts the official imprimatur of the current pope, who attended a special screening at the Vatican with Jon Voight in mid-November. CBS also managed to wangle access to some of the actual rooms in the Vatican where the pope lived and worked, perhaps in exchange for delivering an even more pious portrait than ABC's. Cary Elwes (of The Princess Bride and, more recently, Saw) plays the young Wojtyla as an anti-communist firebrand, lecturing against Marx's manifesto to his pals in the Polish work camp. After being elected supreme pontiff, Elwes undergoes a transformation as miraculous as the weeping virgin of Sacramento: As he steps onto the balcony of St. Peter's to greet the cheering hordes, he has somehow morphed into Jon Voight.

It's the last two hours of the CBS movie that stand out amidst the week's grim slog of papal programming, if only because of Voight's sly, twinkling performance as a pope for all seasons. Scaling mountains in a jaunty black beret or tying on a sombrero at a Mexican religious festival, Voight gives a warmly physical performance that captures the unconventional style and common touch so often attributed to the late pope. In the film's final scenes, he recreates the quavering ill health of John Paul II's final public appearances with an accuracy that's difficult to watch.

While ABC's version is hardly a Kitty Kelly-style exposé, it does showcase one controversial event from the pope's life that the CBS film tactfully elides: In one scene, the El Salvadorian archbishop Oscar Romero (Joaquim de Almeida) is scolded by the pope for espousing liberation theology, a form of religious activism influenced by Marxist teachings. In the next scene, John Paul is consumed with guilt after Romero is shot down by a government death squad while saying Mass.

Both films touch briefly and politely on the issue of abortion and the pedophilia scandals that wracked the church in JPII's waning years; neither mentions the pope's difficult-to-defend policy against the use of condoms in AIDS-ridden Africa. Depending on your tolerance threshold for solemn turgidity, you can pick your own pope pic, or whip out your rosary beads and settle in for the long haul with both.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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