AMONG the hyperbole about television outperforming cinema, the worth of US pay-TV channel HBO is a tad overblown.
After changing television with Sex and the City, The Sopranos and The Wire, HBO has not only delivered more accomplished series but has ensured the trope for cultural critics is ‘‘television drama is the new novel’’.
The Newsroom is not one of its better series yet it was greeted with joy because it came from Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and writer of The Social Network. His lament about the diminution of modern media, starring Jeff Daniels as a liberal news firebrand (is there such a thing?) began promisingly enough but resorted to his worst excesses as a writer: selfrighteousness and intellectual bullying.
It felt as if it was good and it remains frustratingly watchable but it was inconsistent, with strong episodes full of piety and improbabilities. It didn’t possess Sports Night’s lightness or the venal characters and wit of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which failed because it was on free-to-air network television (NBC). It would have been perfect on HBO.
Just as interesting are HBO’s telemovies. For instance, tonight Steven Soderbergh’s telemovie about Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, Behind the Candelabra, is a strong chance to win Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or. Wouldn’t that be amusing?
Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway & Gellhorn (MA15+, HBO, 267min, $34.95) is the latest in HBO’s big-name telemovie strategy.
Kaufman, director of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, corrals Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman in the tale of the famous novelist’s time with his third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.
I’m fond of ‘‘Papa’’ after an editor once gave some succinct advice to this overly verbose, young writer: ‘‘Just read f . . king Hemingway!’’
Ernest lived a life; the more biopics of it the better, I say. But this historical drama doesn’t quite convince despite Kidman’s exceptional performance as Lauren Bacall, I mean, Gellhorn.
Her performance stands within a film that stylistically doesn’t allow the audience in, partly because of its budget. Kaufman and editor Walter Murch’s fun in inserting the characters Zelig- like into newsreel footage and composited effects works technically but it undermines any intimacy or believability the story aims to build. That cartoonish stylistic flourish is only emphasised by Owen’s silly portrayal of Papa.
No one is helped by the screenplay. In a long film, constructed dialogue straight from Hemingway’s works or adapted from his tone gives a comic ‘‘truthiness’’ (the notion constructed by US satirist Stephen Colbert) rather than truth. The film’s ‘‘Hemingway-ness’’ doesn’t work.
But as with most of HBO’s output, I’m glad they tried to make it work. I just don’t come to HBO to over-praise it.
(M) Paramount (125min, $39.99)
(MA15+) Roadshow (90min, $39.95)
(M) HBO (564min, $39.95)