Pope John Paul II led a remarkable life at the center of Europe, not only dynamically rising to the top of the Catholic Church, but resisting two different totalitarian oppressors in his native Poland. His life has natural drama and provides natural inspiration. So it's not surprising that upon his death, which triggered the greatest international outpouring of grief in modern times, that the decision would be made by three different TV networks to produce TV movies about his life.
Or is it? In a broadcast television landscape endlessly littered with gratuitous vulgarity, ABC and CBS deserve applause for taking on this subject matter and daring to present a religious subject without scratching Hollywood's itch to denounce what they see as an antiquated church with outdated dogmas.
Many TV critics scratched that itch in reviewing it. They also condemned the movies as deadly dull. Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe sneered: "Being nice is overrated, especially when it comes to movies." Doug Elfman of the Chicago Sun-Times tried to be the class clown in giving both movies a zero: "I have to endure commercial art that is seemingly created from the waste product of an alien goat people." Perhaps the oddest line came from Robert Lloyd in the Los Angeles Times, sniffing at the CBS film: "It's admiring of its subject, sometimes to a fault. He's a saint, in the secular sense: flawlessly good and giving, with nary an outburst of temper." Wrong. The pope was not a saint in a "secular sense," but a man driven to be a saint in the deepest spiritual sense -- and will have succeeded.
Not every critic was a sourpuss. Tom Shales of the Washington Post didn't care for the ABC movie, but wrote of the CBS offering that it was "not just good but aglow, a kind of thinking viewer's holiday ornament."
ABC's movie was titled "Have No Fear," which sounds more like a superhero-movie title and bumbles the pope's trademark phrase, known to billions, but not ABC, "Be not afraid." The critics were rough on what they found to be a listless march through John Paul's memorable moments. CBS's film, simply titled "Pope John Paul II," was more like a miniseries, with its four-hour length. An edited version was screened in November and blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. Critics were especially struck by the acting of Jon Voight as he displayed both the pope's charisma and his slide into infirmity. Both firms broke from Hollywood conventions by portraying communists as villains and enemies of the Christian faithful.
TV movies are often "dramatizations" of events, meaning the filmmakers have taken liberties with the truth, and nonfiction biographies are best consulted for further contemplation. A few months ago, the Hallmark Channel also aired an original biopic on Pope John Paul. Papal biographer George Weigel thought Hallmark's film was inspiring -- but it made things up. "I counted five historical errors or falsifications in the first four minutes of the film," Weigel said, adding he didn't have space in a column for "the dozens of things the filmmakers got wrong." Among other things, the filmmakers turned one of young Karol Wojytla's female friends into a love interest, and created a spiritual mentor who was shot by the Nazis, neither of which ever happened. Weigel concluded: "Wojtyla's story is dramatic enough without fictional add-ons."
All this does not mean Hollywood has gotten religion. The mocking of the Catholic church and its priests continues on primetime TV. Even between pope movies, ABC's "Boston Legal" stooped to a sleazy plotline about a priest who won't break his confessional seal against a pedophile. Follow me here. The priest's decision causes the show's heroic lawyers to confront him, and during the argument, well, a lawyer accidentally lops off three of the priest's fingers with an axe. The priest's cat runs off with one of his fingers. The lawyers learn the priest is running a sneaky side business, counterfeiting letters of papal blessing for cash. So they successfully blackmail him into breaking his priestly promise in order to get his priestly finger back. These things happen.
The cynic might argue that these films are just an insincere attempt to cash in by baiting all John Paul's admirers to the TV set during the Christmas -- can I say that? -- season, especially after the great love outpoured for the Holy Father after his death. It's an obvious example of trying to attract an audience of Catholics (and other sympathetic people). The same could have been said in 1999, when all three big networks offered films about Jesus at the same time. But let us not be cynical. The networks have offered the public something truly uplifting and for that should be commended, even if it may be another decade before they do it again.