2021, TV

Hemingway (2021)

This 3-part series is, to my knowledge, the first time a single person has gotten the “Ken Burns Treatment.” Given how much stuff Ken Burns’ has created, I certainly could be wrong. But it’s the first of the prestige PBS Ken Burns’ series I am aware of that focuses on one person. (The Roosevelts is the closest I can come up with, but that was three people.) I had some concerns given that Burns’ forte is big, epic stories about eras and major events.

If you, like me, like the way Ken Burns tells stories, you will like this, even if there is a lot to dislike about Ernest Hemingway the man. For a while, Jenn and I wondered why Hemingway, rather than someone else, but his life was so full of stuff that, in retrospect, it seems kind of obvious. You may wonder if one man’s life can fill nearly six hours but the answer is “Absolutely it can.” (And, frankly, it makes me want to see the Graham Greene version, that Burns will never make because Greene is from the wrong country.)

Like an old friend, Burns’ films are comforting. That’s not always what we should want with biography or history but he does attempt to include some of the hard edges. Like any other time Burns and his collaborators have approached a subject, rather than an era or series of events, there is fondness here, perhaps too much at times. (I mean, it wouldn’t exist without that fondness.) And I can see how, particularly with a man like this, that might put some people off. But it still manages to be both interesting as storytelling and also reassuringly “a Ken Burns miniseries” of the kind I grew up with.

I am not a big Hemingway guy, at least not yet. I’ve read many of his stories, though I couldn’t tell you. (I’ve read at least four for sure but I thought it was much more.) I’ve never read any of his novels and I’ve only ever read one of his nonfiction books. (Though this series tells me there is some fiction in A Moveable Feast.) But I found the whole thing pretty compelling and I was never bored. I learned a lot about Hemingway, sure, but I learned about why people revere him, and I learned little things about the first half of the 20th century that I did not know about. I saw it through a new lens, let’s say. (About Hemingway: did you know he was once in two planes crashes in two days?!?!)

Yes, the whole thing is a little too hagiographic. They don’t quite reckon with how much of an asshole he was before he went crazy. And it does feel as though some of the interviewees want to apologize for him (or for remaining fans while being aware of the bad stuff). But they do tell us the bad stuff and they do at least try to present a balanced portrait.

As six hour films about one person go, I thoroughly enjoyed it.


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