This is an engrossing, fascinating and occasionally moving miniseries about the lives of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It has a rather big problem, but it’s still worth watching.
This is very much a Pandemic film and that ends up being it’s biggest flaw. But not necessarily in the way you might expect. I think that had this been directed by someone other than Ethan Hawke, or perhaps made during another time, it might have been better.
I have seen a bunch of Paul Newman’s most famous films but nowhere near all of his films. But I barely knew who Joanne Woodward was. It turns out, they had an incredibly interesting life, easily enough for six hours or so. The story of their family is interesting, the story of their dynamic is interesting – she’s the bigger star then he becomes a way bigger one – and the story of his other pursuits is interesting. And there’s some tragedy, too, if you go for that sort of thing. Hawke got access to a ton of transcripts (there’s a story behind that), he got a bunch of talented people to help him, and there’s a bunch of archival footage. You really feel like you know them as people, by the end, and I found it compelling throughout.
But I have some quibbles: they play fast and loose with the chronology as any quick Google can tell you or, even, the film credits at the end. There is a narrative imposed here that does not match reality. I get that this is the prerogative of art but it’s still a little weird.
But the bigger problem is the Zoom stuff. And no, I don’t mean the fact that the interviews are conducted over Zoom. That’s not the problem. The problem is the immense amount of material that is Ethan Hawke talking about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, to his cast, and also about how he should make his TV series. Though occasionally there is some insight, mostly this Zoom stuff is a lot more about Ethan Hawke than it is about the focus of the show. I think there was probably more of their story that could have been told instead of the “process” stuff. I don’t really see the point and I think it detracted from what was otherwise a really compelling documentary.
But the film succeeds in spite of this rather big misstep. I think that’s a credit to Hawke’s idea of using these old transcripts, but also it’s just because these are two really interesting people.