“Well, he had his demons,” we say when we get news of another brilliant artist gone to their grave, if not directly by their own hand, then by bad habits so thoroughly indulged that they might as well have.
The literary list is long: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and more. Towering over them all, of course, is Ernest Hemingway: terse modernist, wounded veteran, drinker, lover, fighter, hunter, suicide, and subject of master documentary maker Ken Burns’ latest offering. And if Hemingway is about the writer’s larger-than-life life, the series is also about his death.
Call me Papa
Of course, being a Ken Burns project, the series is hardly modest in its ambitions. Hemingway is an exhaustive biographical portrait of the man, each two-hour episode an exactingly thorough examination of Hemingway’s life and work.
Narrated by Burns regular Peter Coyote, with Jeff Daniels providing Hemingway’s voice, we cover every inch of ground from his childhood in Illinois to his death in Idaho. Along the way we take in his World War I service, his years in Paris, his literary successes, his many loves (Keri Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Mary Louise Parker, and Meryl Streep voice his four wives), his adventures on the hunt and on the front, his struggles with alcohol and depression, his decline, his death by suicide, and his legacy.
Even a hagiographic and uncritical account of Hemingway’s life would be fascinating, but Burns and co-director Lynn Novick go deeper, resulting in a much richer documentary experience.