The long history of Ken Burns documentaries ranges from places to people to entire wars. His latest collaboration with Lynn Novick, “Hemingway,” falls in that middle category, portraying Ernest Hemingway’s war-spanning, tumultuous life over six hours, which might not qualify as Hemingway-esque brevity, but proves fascinating nevertheless.
Seeking to bring the written words to life, the filmmakers have in their showiest flourish enlisted Jeff Daniels to provide Hemingway’s onscreen voice, reading from his letters and published works, in an understated fashion that conveys the power of their simplicity. In some cases, that includes long passages from his books, augmented by actresses (among them Meryl Streep) speaking for the author’s four wives.
The third-party observers are equally showy, from a bevy of academics to the late John McCain, an ardent admirer of Hemingway’s writing and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in particular.
Perhaps foremost, “Hemingway” — which will play over three successive nights — seeks to convey the various contradictions that surrounded him, as well as the extent to which the larger-than-life persona that he embodied, and the macho image that he studiously cultivated, were swept up in the man himself.
“It became very exhausting to be Hemingway,” says writer Michael Katakis, who observes early on that “the man is much more interesting than the myth.”
Not surprisingly, the documentary is filled with noteworthy little details, like the 47 versions of “A Farewell to Arms” that Hemingway wrote before he was satisfied with the ending, the real-life characters that inspired “The Sun Also Rises,” or his casual use of racial slurs in a letter lambasting another writer to his editor. The personal material includes Hemingway’s relationship with his parents — labeling his father “a coward” for dying by suicide, before later emulating him — and his own children, one of whom, Patrick, is among those interviewed.
By necessity, the story spans the globe, from the wars that Hemingway covered as a journalist to the extended time he spent in Paris, Africa and Cuba, and how each of those locales informed and influenced his work.
Again narrated by Peter Coyote, the documentary states upfront that Hemingway “remade American literature,” which doesn’t make him, bluntly, any less of a jerk, as much in his dealings with those close to him as the world at large.
“They’ll be reading my stuff long after the worms have finished with you,” Hemingway is quoted as saying to one of his wives, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, underlying the cruelty that was part of his complex makeup.
Hemingway enjoyed such dazzling success early in his life that his last act — captured in rare video that shows him haltingly reading interview responses off cards, including the punctuation — feels especially tragic. As McCain notes, his excesses and vices served as a reminder of his human fallibility, and journalist Edwin Newman is shown eulogizing Hemingway as “an intensely American writer.”
If there’s one oversight, perhaps, it’s in the relatively limited discussion of Hemingway’s cultural legacy, from imitation Hemingway competitions to Hollywood’s efforts to adapt his books.
“I just nail words together, like a bloody carpenter,” Daniels, as Hemingway, explains at one point.
PBS has faced criticism for relying too heavily on Burns’ output, but once again, the trio of Burns, Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward have erected their own detailed scaffolding, earning their reputation as the gold standard for historical programming. And while many documentary series drags on these days, “Hemingway” chronicles a life with so many pieces 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.