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Monday, November 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden

Network biopics can't do full justice to complex John Paul II

Seattle Times TV critic

Holy, holy, holy: With November sweeps nearly done and Christmas looming ahead, networks are playing the pope card on three different nights.

ABC will present "Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II" at 8 p.m. Thursday. CBS then unveils its four-hour miniseries "Pope John Paul II" at 9 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7.

In this race to the altar, Hallmark Channel actually was first; it presented a biopic of the late pontiff last May. But the ABC and CBS projects constitute a better test of his enduring interest to viewers nearly eight months after a funeral that drew the biggest audience in papal history.

Since then, John Paul II's image has settled into place. He comes across in media portrayals as the Ronald Reagan of religion — an ideological conservative with a superb record on foreign relations and a very mixed one on domestic issues.

The facts are more complicated and a well-done biography can tease out the distinctions. It also can lend relevance to a legacy whose latest reverberations include this year's 25th anniversary of Poland's Solidarity movement as well as last week's news that the Vatican will ban gay priests.

Neither the ABC nor CBS movies manage to do any of this. Both go over the well-trampled ground covered last spring in news documentaries, and both apparently are terrified of stirring controversy la CBS' "The Reagans."

For that reason, the films are a tossup as learning experiences. But as entertainment, I'd give the edge to ABC's lean and low-cost version on Thursday.

It isn't just that "Have No Fear" is shorter. It's lyrical and intimate versus spectacular and mind-numbingly detailed. ABC has turned a budget deficit into an artistic advantage, and that's rare in an era of TV designed to stretch ratings over two nights instead of one.

The best reason to watch is the lead performance. Thomas Kretschmann may not have the name recognition of Jon Voight and Cary Elwes, who split the pope's role in CBS' production, but he's a subtle and profound actor.

Kretschmann plays Karol Wojtyla from young adulthood to death and bestows a semi-aristocratic bearing on the future pontiff — the bearing of an intellectual whose passions never quite get the better of his acute political judgment.

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This rings true. My great-grand relatives were university professors and military officers in Eastern Europe who fled after successive purges by the Czar and the Communists. I see their attitudes and sensibilities captured in Kretschmann's performance.

"Have No Fear" opens with a defining moment: John Paul II's apology for the Catholic Church's failure to act during the Holocaust and for its past acts against Jews.

As we see the pope pray at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall, his voice-over thoughts (recorded in hushed-church ambiance) carry us to Wodowice, Poland, circa 1928.

The watershed events of young Karol's existence are rendered in a succession of brief, lucid vignettes chosen for character-forming influence. They range from the early deaths of his mother and brother to his visit to the shrine of the Black Madonna. Through it all, Karol is such a good boy that you yearn for him to do something bad.

That never happens. But we do get a startling scene where a grown-up and handsome Wojtyla, now at college, engages in a passionate kiss during a stage production.

"I wish it were real," he tells the young woman. She rebuffs him with a reminder that she's Jewish and dating would be impossible. Their conversation is the closest "Have No Fear" comes to acknowledging anti-Semitism in Poland was rampant before Hitler.

CBS' biography omits this episode. However, it has another girl, and the shared point seems to be that Wojtyla wasn't some church wonk before taking orders in 1946.

His activities during World War II do get different treatments at ABC and CBS.

ABC skims the period by highlighting Wojtyla's scholarly subversion in the form of secret theatrical stagings and the taking of seminary instructions. CBS lingers over his pro-active participation in the Polish resistance and regales us with detailed escapades.

This divergence really is two sides of the same coin. Both films are trying to show how principles like "Thou shalt not kill" could be reconciled with taking a stand against wartime atrocities. Wojtyla's tormented response wasn't always consistent.

It was, however, diplomatic and principled. Along with an incredible capacity for study and a gift for acting, the someday pope had an impeccable sense of when to defy or back off. His rise through church hierarchy in Communist Poland was phenomenally fast.

That's why Kretschmann's portrait of a man with a sense of destiny is more persuasive than Elwes, whose Wojtyla comes across as an affable rube transformed by war.

In any event, Voight takes over from Elwes in CBS' Part II, which begins with John Paul II's ordination. Voight's always been a quirky, invigorating presence, and he invests the pope with a jocularity and temper previously absent.

But neither Voight nor Kretschmann can do much about scripts that focus on John Paul II's great contributions and pay comparative lip service to positions that were less popular, especially among female and gay Catholics.

These subjects are not entirely avoided. ABC gives a vivid recounting of how the pope misunderstood and misjudged the political climate in Central America that led to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador.

Still, the debate over liberation theology is not nearly as touchy to U.S. audiences as the topics that have roiled the Catholic Church here: sex abuse of children, abortion, contraception, gay marriage and the role of women in the church.

The late pontiff's action on these matters gets little dissection compared to the screen time lavished on his efforts to help banish Communism in Eastern Europe and his tremendous outreach to young Catholics around the globe.

"Pope John Paul II" and "Have No Fear" also manage to just note his fierce opposition to the war in Iraq.

Yet I'd argue that this position best demonstrates how John Paul II was a first-class thinker and first-class leader. Easy labels and political alliances did not apply to him — and neither do timid network biographies.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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