Belated Film Review: HBO Films and ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’

hemingway-and-gellhorn PHOTO
(Photo “courtesy” of Paste Magazine)

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by Kolby Solinsky

Editor, White Cover Magazine

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I’m not sure if you could properly label this belated. The movie is recent, although it was lost in everything HBO and everything Game Change. That, of course, was the “documentary” made-for-TV film about the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s 2008 running mate. It’s not a positive portrayal of Alaska’s goofiest, and in reviewing that film, I can sum it up quite easily: I hated it.

That may be the only time I’ve ever agreed with Republican pundits, but I’ll admit it completely and faithfully. The problem, of course, wasn’t with the actors (Ed Harris and Julianne Moore, or even Woody Harrelson) and it wasn’t with the director, Jay Roach.

No, the problem was with HBO Films, and it’s those same cinematic hemorrhoids that plague Hemingway & Gellhorn.

What you have here is a desperate-to-be-cool account-on-reel of two of the 20th century’s greatest citizens. Truly, and not just in the literary sense. At their height and at their personal best, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn were unbreakable and almost too noble to document.

It’s ironic, then, because this film by the same studio that somehow managed to produce Entourage and The Sopranos at the same time has unearthed its own criticisms during the film’s two and a half hours (TWO AND A HALF HOURS!) of running time.

Early on, Clive Owen’s Hemingway sees a poster for the film version of his most famous love novel, A Farewell to Arms, in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.

“It’s not my movie,” he says, which is predictable if nothing else of what a larger-than-life writer would say. Ah, yes. Hank Moody said the same thing. Even Tarantino hated True Romance. Writers hate the movies, don’t they?

Well, then why are you making this one, HBO?

Then, about halfway through, Owen gets in a fight with a critic at the premiere of their awfully boring-looking Civil War film, which Hemingway narrated (again, exposing the terrible hypocrisy that film is only great when it’s great for you and only terrible in the same situation).

“I was just telling my friends here what you said about my book,” he begins. “His talent’s been outstripped by fear of his flagging masculinity. Then you said, uh, Come out from behind that false hair on your chest, Ernest. We all know you.”

It’s unclear whether HBO knew this critique could be used on the character Owen’s playing or not, but I couldn’t escape laughing a little to myself over it.

To no fault of Clive, his Hemingway character seems more like the one drummed up in legend than it does of the man, himself. Not that I knew him, of course, but that last name — HEMINGWAY — has struck fear into the minds of so many thousands like me. Everyone wants to be the next Hemingway.

That name haunts us, and is HBO really foolish enough to believe they’re the only ones who hold the key to his Key West-based kingdom?

None of the manly scenes in this film go far enough to inspire much of anything. Yes, Hemingway liked to hunt and fish and kill. It’s pretty cool, right?

Well, because we’ve known that for almost a century now, there’s little emotion that comes from seeing Clive Owen slowly grab a fallen Spaniard’s rifle and roll over the top of a trench. He yells something like “Hurrah!” and then runs clumsily toward what was, I guess, the battle. Nicole Kidman (playing Gellhorn) follows him and yells his last name about fifty times.

HEMINGWAY! GELLHORN! HEMINGWAY! GELLHORN! HEMINGWAY! GELLHORN!

The entire film seems to get off on its own last names. They’re all your hear, and they lose their lustre about five minutes in.

The two of them ride around on tanks and accompany a documentary film crew around Madrid. Again, it’s as if they think this is the only film crew on earth or that Hemingway is the only writer worth paying.

Additionally, can Hollywood stop showing Hemingway chugging bottles of rum and vodka while writing? Hemingway admitted he hated writing drunk and he always tried to avoid it. He was an alcoholic, yes, but he always claimed to have separated his drink from his craft, and Ernest Hemingway was nothing if not honest.

(*And, if I need to say it, the film never shows anything that might really make us uncomfortable. They show Hemingway having an affair with his eventual fourth wife behind Martha Gellhorn’s back, but they never show any of the other numerous affairs he had. And, they never show all the affairs Gellhorn had with other men. How can you make a movie that lasts two and a half hours and never dip into something that even Wikipedia reports?)

This movie is more Walk the Line than Ray. (That’s not a good thing.) It’s more Hallmark than it is WTN, and more WTN than it is HBO.

Of course, so was Game Change. So was The Rat Pack. All these HBO Films seem to be made for the actors and not the audience. The network that has made such a name out of telling stories nobody had told before suddenly turns into something all too familiar when it tags “Films” onto the end of its title.

Game Change was an excuse for somebody other than Tina Fey to impersonate America’s most embarrassing woman for two hours. Julianne Moore did what she could, but unfortunately the water was plagued by the well.

Even worse, Game Change won every Emmy under the sun, which will only encourage HBO to continue its self-indulgent theatrics. And, to every other network with a TV Film division, it will only push them to abandon their own greater formula for HBO’s.

The Emmy’s though, weren’t won because the film was that good (although, pretty surprisingly, the late Roger Ebert thought it was worthy of three and a half stars). No, they were won because it was the only competitor.

Can you name another TV Film in the past 12 months that deserved to win? Did any other flick get the publicity that Game Change got?

It would be like comparing the telecasts of the Oscars and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Sure, you might hate the Oscars, but would you ever watch the latter?

In its only few great moments, Hemingway & Gellhorn tells the United States about (perhaps) its best-ever female war correspondent. Martha Gellhorn was a pioneer who never wanted to be lost in the shadow of her husband. She was, and so she bailed. That takes honour, because Hemingway would have done the same.

The only problem is, this film makes it far too obvious. It can’t go five minutes without reminding us exactly what’s happening and why.

When you watch a film about Ernest Hemingway — like when you watch one about Abraham Lincoln — you expect to hear or see something you didn’t know. You expect the actors to be challenged. You expect the film to go places other films haven’t.

That may sound like a tall totem pole for comparison, but the film only brings it on itself. It’s asking for it. It has Hemingway in the title. That’s going to raise expectations to something sky-high, but still attainable.

And, like other films of the same misguided pregnancy– InvictusGame Change, or J. Edgar — it simply fails. Flat and fat.

Still, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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