It's Pope vs. Pope in twin TV bios of John Paul II

Rival US TV networks are serving up dramatized biographies of Pope John Paul II this week, and even if one has him kissing a high school sweetheart in his teens, some critics say both films make the great man seem dull.

The ABC film aired Thursday and a CBS two-part miniseries debuts Sunday.

Reviewers say both skirt the controversy of the pontiff's 26-year reign on such issues as abortion, homosexuality, and women in the priesthood to dwell on his saintliness.

But as the New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley noted, the biopics are groundbreaking in at least one way.

"The last time there were two popes--one in Rome and the other in Avignon--was almost 600 years ago," Stanley wrote.

"This time around, it is not much easier to determine who is the more legitimate Pope John Paul II: Jon Voight on CBS or Thomas Kretschmann on ABC," said Stanley, who covered the Polish-born pope as a correspondent in Rome.

The Los Angeles Times gave a thumbs-up to Voight, who first won fame for playing a male prostitute in Midnight Cowboy.

"Voight is good at embodying power, and he catches the stages of John Paul's physical diminishment, from injury and from Parkinson's disease, with astonishing exactitude. He doesn't appear to be acting," said LA Times critic Robert Lloyd.

But Lloyd added, "It's an impressive performance that does not keep the film from becoming tedious."

Both films were commissioned after the pontiff died on April 2 and cover his life from his youth in Poland, where he grew up as Karol Wojtyla, through his resistance to the Nazis and then the communists and his rise to world leader.

The New York Times's Stanley said the ABC version "managed to gin up a hint of youthful romance."

"In 1938, the young Karol...pursued his high school love of theater. In a rehearsal scene he kisses a fellow student, then whispers to her, 'I wish this was real."'

The ABC show did not catch fire with Hollywood Reporter critic Barry Garron, who said it failed to convey the pope's "sense of humor, love of music, or a fondness for sausage."

"This depiction of John Paul II as half human, half saint...leaves us with a character that is less dimensional and less relatable and, consequently, less interesting."

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Of course the Pope would seem dull in both shows ... I bet he is. You can't be a Pope if you've had some kind of wild crazy life. How exciting is praying all the time? I mean it's good and all but just not an adrenaline rush.
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The Poop on the Pope
What's especially important about the dueling biopix is that they harken back to the greatness that is the television movie.
More than any dramatic programming tool -- and arguable even more than network news -- TV movies have been the greatest force on air for the exploration of social issues, and occasionally even progressive change. Biopix such as LBJ: the Early Years shed light on the men and women who change history. True stories such as ROE V. WADE, SERVING IN SILENCE, and THE BURNING BED personalized critical social issues before millions of viewers. and the Grandaddy of all TV long form, ROOTS, become part of a cultural wave of understanding of the suffering of African Americans. In a field choked with the trivial weeds of SIMPLE LIVES, THE REAL OC and APPRENTICES, let us at least be thankful there are a few movies-for-television still being programmed, whose goal is to enlighten as well as entertain.
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