Papa & Marty at the movies: Hemingway & Gellhorn
At worst, Hemingway & Gellhorn is the best bad movie you’ll see all year. It has two stars–Nicole Kidman and Clive Owens–at the top of their game and the chemistry between them incandesces. There’s a great supporting cast too: David Strathairn as the crushable John Dos Passos; Tony Shalhoub as Mikhail Koltsov, the Stalinist journalist in Spain who provided the model for Karkov in For Whom the Bell Tolls. There’s even Robert Duvall in a small but juicy cameo as a lustful Russian general. The sex is hot. The scope is global. The cinematography and editing are masterly and include some of the most sophisticated digital compositing you’ve ever seen, letting the actors run around within archival footage, mingling reenactments with historic footage, and recreating iconic photos from Robert Capa’s portfolio, amidst other magic. And the sound track is great too, proving the old saw that the Republicans had the best songs.
Why did I say then that it is a bad movie? Because that’s what I thought it was the first time I saw it, and a lot of critics felt the same way. In my case it was the former English major that was outraged–outraged!–at this glossy, strident, insanely romantic yet stereotyped portrayal of Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, their life and love affair. There’s definitely a paint-by-numbers quality to the use of Hemingway’s dialogue. You soon start playing “spot the quotation” and wondering if certain scenes weren’t just set up so Hemingway can pontificate about “grace under pressure.” The flaming romance between Papa and Marty breathes harder than a telenovela, and the symbolic elements are as subtle as a marlin thudding onto a deck.
But the second time I watched this movie, I relaxed. I realized that this is a Roy Lichtenstein, not an Andrew Wyeth; a Classic Comic version done with high craft, a seductive and even moving parodic depiction of two melodramatic lives lived by two highly dramatic characters who reveled in their own fame and public presentation. Hemingway was among other things a genius of self-promotion who played the media of his day, and Gellhorn was no slouch either as her own PR person–except for one thing. After her divorce from EH she refused to become a “footnote” to his story and steadfastly refused to retail the tale of their marriage. On the other hand she was one of the world’s great letter writers as well as a terrific journalist, so her personality was open for inspection.
Everybody has waited years for Hollywood to do a great movie about the Spanish Civil War, and while this one may not satisfy that yearning, it’s still a respectable shot at the project. Joris Iven’s classic documentary The Spanish Earth could almost be called the second subject of this movie: big chunks of it are used as found, and in other times it serves as background for composited shots of Hemingway and Gellhorn, Capa and Dos Passos running around Spain and the battle of Madrid. The integration of new and old footage is seamless and eerie. And the film doesn’t flinch from beloved clichés, like the Brooklyn boy with the guitar (“this guitar kills fascists”) who sings “there’s a valley in Spain called Jarama.”
The last third of the movie–the death of the love affair and the decline and death of Hemingway–is darker and less bombastic. As Hemingway is unpeeled in his treachery and vulnerability, Clive Owen keeps Hemingway’s magnetism and charm alight for a long time despite revelation after revelation of the writer’s mean-spirited jealousy. In point of fact Hemingway did not fall apart as soon as his marriage to Gellhorn dissolved. He managed to get a Nobel Prize and wrote some damn good books too. But this is a movie and in the end it’s Gellhorn’s movie, not Papa’s. She is the triumphant survivor.
Judith Rascoe is a screenwriter based in San Francisco. Her credits include The Bang-Bang Club and Who’ll Stop the Rain.