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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's Hemingway documentary is excessive and discordant, but it manages to work

  • "Is 2021 the worst time imaginable for a six-hour documentary about Ernest Hemingway? Maybe," says Daniel Fienberg of Burns and Novick's PBS documentary on the iconic American writer. "Is 2021 the best time imaginable for a six-hour documentary about Ernest Hemingway? Maybe. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are prolific discoursers with virtually no limitations imposed on them beyond the fact that they're constantly researching five or six documentaries past the one they're actively making. Their cinematic vernacular and storytelling exhaustiveness could not be more at odds with Hemingway's terseness, his deceptive simplicity, his ruthless self-editing. In that sense, PBS' new six-hour Hemingway is excessive and discordant, with regular writer Geoffrey C. Ward's winding, embellished sentences clashing with Hemingway's own distinctive writing, read here by Jeff Daniels, who delivers far more sensitivity than Hemingway himself might have felt comfortable with. But Burns and Novick are pragmatic romantics, aspiring to iconic portraits built out of as many contradictions as they can find about their subjects. Taken on those terms, PBS' Hemingway delivers the Ernest Hemingway people know, the Ernest Hemingway people think they know and the Ernest Hemingway captured in his private correspondence, in the recollections of others less invested in his hagiography, and in close literary analysis of his best and worst work. That's a lot of Hemingway. So is Hemingway too long? Yes. Does Hemingway have enough rewards to justify its length? Also yes."


    • Ken Burns and Lynn Novick use the author’s own statements, letters, photographs, and other writings to verify some of our worst assumptions: "As cultural conversations about whether we can separate the exemplary work of an artist from their problematic personal life resurface over and over again, Hemingway wades into that same muddy water and throws down its anchor. The result is a docuseries that acknowledges what it doesn’t definitively know about Hemingway—did his sexual experimentation suggest questions related to his gender identity; did all the concussions he suffered contribute to mental illness?—while doing its best to paint a full portrait of the artist and the man. Hemingway seems to come down a certain way on whether his moral failings overshadow the beauty and exemplary quality of short stories like The Snows Of Kilimanjaro and novels such as The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell To Arms, but Burns and Novick also leave space for viewers to make their own decisions."
    • Even for the casual Hemingway follower, there are few revelations in the PBS documentary: "The idea of a Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway seems both obvious and a bit absurd," says Laura Miller. "Burns’ long project of celebrating the most dad-friendly pillars of American culture and history—the Civil War, baseball, jazz—makes Hemingway (after Mark Twain, covered by Burns in 2002) almost inevitable. Hemingway’s life was full of exciting adventures, and, not incidentally, he is surely the most photographed writer of the 20th century, so there’s lots of visual material to draw from. Yet after decades of dominating ideas about how a writer should live and work, Hemingway feels increasingly irrelevant today, his influence diminished to a vanishing point, his reputation corroded by a dated personal mythos. According to the Chicago Tribune, even in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby alone outsells all of Hemingway’s work combined, and the Hemingway Foundation had to launch a GoFundMe campaign to keep the museum at his birthplace open. Hemingway promises to refresh the author’s image by uncovering 'the man behind the myth,' as if the two could ever be separated in this relentlessly self-mythologizing figure. Even for the casual Hemingway follower, there are few revelations in the PBS documentary, which premieres on Monday. Although much is made of the fact that the author had an erotic interest in swapping gender roles with his female partners, that came out with the posthumous publication of The Garden of Eden in the 1980s. I learned exactly two things from the very leisurely six hours of Hemingway. One was the profusion of serious head injuries the author sustained over his lifetime, particularly in the years leading up to his death by suicide at the age of 61. The other was that, even in his heyday, the punishing ideal of masculinity that Hemingway embraced raised the eyebrows of critics and acquaintances alike. The notion that his machismo was sentimental and over the top, that it damaged his work and was really pretty ridiculous—that criticism was made from the very start."
    • Hemingway is mostly for viewers who are already fans of Ernest Hemingway: “Hemingway won’t do much to entice new fans of the author — certainly not enough for them to commit to six hours about his life," says Kristen Lopez. "But if you’re a literary fan and have connected with any of the author’s works, you’ll find something that resonates. It’s a documentary interested in showing the author, warts and all, and giving audiences the opportunity to look at how all these elements made up a man whose works are pieces of art."
    • In Hemingway, the women around the author are as illuminating as the author himself: "Each of his four wives has something revelatory to say — and these spouses are given voice by a quartet of wonderful actresses, who bring the women's private letters and other writings to vivid life," says David Bianculli. "Meryl Streep has the meatiest part as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's third wife. Her dispatches during the Normandy invasion rivalled, and arguably exceeded, his own. But the other wives are given voice by Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson. And Jeff Daniels supplies the voice of Ernest Hemingway, reading from his private letters as well as his published short stories and other writings."
    • Hemingway is a story that is a lot more sensitive than one could’ve imagined: "The depths it explores of Hemingway’s deep-seated solitude is what drives the documentary to its most sincere domains," says Kiko Martinez. "Hemingway is an engaging and beautifully constructed character study and proof that whatever Burns chooses to cover as a filmmaker will more than likely become the definitive documentary on that specific topic."
    • Hemingway complicates the popular image of Hemingway as he-man woman-hater (or, at least, woman-dismisser) in his life and his work
    • Hemingway is a disembodied movie about a writer who was disembowelled by depression, alcoholism, sex shame, and vanity
    • When the documentary does directly engage with Hemingway’s writing, it celebrates his sentences, not the breadth of his work or depth of his themes
    • While Hemingway scholars have fixated on his father, PBS' Hemingway gives his mother equal time: "In the years since the great writer’s death in 1961, biographers and scholars have wasted no amount of words examining the father-son relationship," says Michael S. Rosenwald. "Clarence had inspired his son’s love of hunting and adventure. They also shared lifelong struggles with depression. The connections were obvious. But as a new three-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick makes clear, Hemingway’s less-heralded relationship with his mother probably shaped the writer’s life in ways well beyond the one with his father — especially concerning the women with whom Hemingway was constantly falling in love."

    TOPICS: Hemingway, PBS, Ernest Hemingway, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Documentaries