All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.
Ken Burns adds significantly to his already-impressive body of documentary work with his (and Lynn Novick’s) new three-part PBS film Hemingway. The project presents an in-depth and anything-but-hagiographic look at one of America’s most renowned writers, accounting for the man’s greatness as well as the various warts on his (adulterous, abusive, backstabbing, and sometimes downright racist) character. Indeed, what develops over the course of nearly six hours is a portrait of a virtuoso with plenty of vices.
Finely constructed, Hemingway astounds on a technical level. The documentary features incredible voicework, starting with the captivating narration provided by Peter Coyote (this guy could read a phone book aloud and make it sound interesting) and also including Jeff Daniels as the eponymous figure (the actor recites pieces of Hemingway’s work and excerpts from his letters). The accompanying visuals (archival footage; countless scene-setting photos) transport the viewer back through history and into Hemingway’s time. Fellow authors (from Tobias Wolff to Mario Vargas Llosa, Edna O’Brien to Tim O’Brien) and literary scholars furnish cogent commentary and precise analysis.
As a man who engaged in a series of tempestuous relationships with women, and a writer who lived a supremely adventurous life, Hemingway makes for a fascinating subject. His biography also contains no shortage of surprises. For all his legendary machismo, Hemingway is revealed here as a man haunted by fears (e.g. he dreaded sleeping alone or without a nightlight shining). His life is marked by darkness, the exposure to death and violence on both a personal (family tragedy; traumatic injury) and global (the mass atrocity of warfare) level. Hemingway builds to a heartbreaking conclusion, as it shows how a combination of alcoholism, depression, and the deleterious effects of repeated head injuries precipitates a tragic slide into pronounced mental illness and eventual suicide.
The film convincingly demonstrates how Hemingway’s life, like his work, speaks to all the joy and sorrow, the beauty and horror, endemic to the human condition. While establishing the unique nature of the man’s literary genius, Hemingway also evinces the basic traits (positive and negative) that connect Papa to us all.