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‘Hemingway’ review: Ken Burns takes on writer with PBS documentary as big as his tumultuous life

Seeking to bring written words to life, the filmmakers have, in their most spectacular flourishing, enlisted Jeff Daniels to provide Hemingway’s on-screen voice, reading his letters and published works, in a sober manner that conveys the power of their simplicity. In some cases, this includes long passages from his books, augmented by actresses (including Meryl Streep) speaking on behalf of the author’s four wives.

Third-party observers are equally conspicuous, from a multitude of academics to the late John McCain, a staunch admirer of Hemingway’s writing and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in particular.

Perhaps above all, “Hemingway” – which will take place over three successive nights – seeks to convey the various contradictions that surrounded him, as well as the extent to which the larger-than-life character he portrayed, and the image macho which he cultivated studiously, was carried away in the man himself.

“It had become very exhausting to be Hemingway,” said writer Michael Katakis, who soon found that “man is much more interesting than myth”.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary is filled with remarkable little details, like the 47 versions of “A Farewell to Arms” that Hemingway wrote before being satisfied with the ending, the actual characters that inspired “The Sun Also Rises”, or his occasional use of racial slurs in a letter lambasting another writer to his editor. The personal material includes Hemingway’s relationship with his parents – calling his father a “coward” for committing suicide, before imitating him later – and his own children, one of whom, Patrick, is among the people. questioned.

By necessity, the story spans the globe, from the wars Hemingway covered as a journalist to the extended time he spent in Paris, Africa and Cuba, and how each of these places informed and influenced his work.

Again narrated by Peter Coyote, the documentary declares from the outset that Hemingway “remade American literature”, which doesn’t make him, downright, any less silly, as much in his relationships with those close to him as in the world at large. .

“They’ll read my stuff long after the worms are done with you,” Hemingway reportedly told one of his wives, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, pointing out the cruelty that was part of his complex makeup.

Hemingway enjoyed such runaway success early in his life that his final act – captured in a rare video that shows him hesitantly reading interview responses, including punctuation – is particularly tragic. As McCain notes, his excesses and vices have been a reminder of his human fallibility, and journalist Edwin Newman is praised by Hemingway as “an intensely American writer.”

If there is one oversight, perhaps it is in the relatively limited discussion of Hemingway’s cultural heritage, from Hemingway impersonation contests to Hollywood’s efforts to adapt his books.

“I just nail words together, like a bloody carpenter,” says Daniels, like Hemingway, at one point.

PBS has come under fire for relying too much on Burns’ production, but once again, the trio of Burns, Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward have erected their own detailed scaffolding, earning their reputation as the go-to in the field. historical programming. And while plenty of documentaries hang around these days, “Hemingway” tells a life with so many parts that six hours, in this case, doesn’t feel like too much to ask.

“Hemingway” will air April 5-7 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.

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