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Kaufman misses mark in movie ?on Hemingway's journalist wife

Phil Kaufman's "Hemingway and Gellhorn" couldn't have more wrong with it if it tried. And that's tragic because it does one thing – and one thing only – so very right that it deserves to be seen, even if you have to DVR it and find the time.

It premiered on HBO on Monday, the same day that "Hatfields and McCoys" began its record-setting three-night run on the History Channel. Those who have digital cable will have a handful of opportunities over the next six days to either watch or slap it on their DVRs for the future (It is, for instance, on HBO3 at 4:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. today. It will be back on regular HBO soon.)

I'd strongly advise seeing it. If you do, you'll see one of our greatest film actresses – Nicole Kidman – doing something that we have great film actresses for.

In this case, that means rescuing Martha Gellhorn from a pitiable damnation of history – holding secondary status in the life of one of America's greatest writers and compulsive celebrities.

Ernest Hemingway, that is.

In the second-to-last scene in the film, an aging Gellhorn is being interviewed by a journalist eager to know everything about her late-1930s relationship and early '40s marriage to Ernest Hemingway (when "For Whom the Bell Tolls" was on his writing desk and published in 1940; use your imagination for the couple's penchant for sleeping bags). She answers in a voice Kidman found somewhere within that's half an octave lower than her real one. And what she tells the journalist is that she was no footnote to someone else's life.

Amen.

Gellhorn was, in fact, a great war correspondent who had the ambivalent luck to share the destiny of America's most celebrated writer during the era when the worst of the world wars was fought.

In its insistence on using a great actresses to tell a television audience about the courage and independence of one of the 20th century's least celebrated journalists – and most tragically celebrated wives – it gets its one and only thing right. Do not confuse this with a fashionable gender entitlement story. This is an overdue reputation well-drawn for a popular medium.

Everything else is off – just a little bit off in some cases but in other cases obnoxiously inaccurate to an almost felonious degree.

And that's deeply sad for some of us, because its director, Phil Kaufman, has given us some great movies in his time, from his early Western "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid" and "The Right Stuff" to his finest hour by far, his elegant and great version of Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

He was never as good as the reputation that his old San Francisco friend Pauline Kael created for him (read her hyperbolic shamelessness about his perfectly ordinary remake of Don Siegel's classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"). But you can't blame a man for having the right friends at the right time, especially if, in his case, that doesn't ever seem to have been his original intention. The Kaufman-Kael friendship was a perfectly organic and natural one – the higher careerism, if you will, and not the lower and slimier sort.

Heaven knows Kaufman has demonstrated an affinity for great writers – not just in his best film "The Unbearable Lightness" but in "Henry and June," his laudable misfire that tried to somehow get onscreen the intense love triangle formed by Henry Miller, his promiscuous wife June and the writer Anais Nin.

Kaufman was smart enough to know there was a great movie in there somewhere. Unfortunately, his movie wasn't it.

He was smart enough to know there was a great movie in "Hemingway and Gellhorn," too – especially if you've somehow landed Nicole Kidman to be your Gellhorn. But the movie gets away from him in the opening minutes and is well out into open sea while the script he signed on to make gets just about everything wrong it can.

It isn't Clive Owen's fault as Hemingway. He's just giving the world the macho, drinking-gourd life that all the slick magazines so relished throughout the war and midcentury years (until Hemingway blew it all to smithereens with his father's shotgun). Owen is certainly a more apt Hemingway than the last one the movies gave us, Chris O'Donnell.

It's just that Kaufman misses the mark right off the bat.

We see all those Americans flocking to the Spanish Civil War, which the cynical might call the early out of town tryout for World War II. Hemingway and Gellhorn are among them. So, we see, is John Dos Passos (David Straitharn). Before Kaufman's movie is over, Dos Passos – who by the time of the film had already written his greatest work in "U.S.A." – is slandered as a coward and probably a repressed homosexual, too.

Among those flocking to Spain, we see a Bohemian American leftist singing a folk song. On his guitar is plastered a sticker that reads "this guitar kills fascists."

Anyone who has ever seen the classic photo of Woody Guthrie knows that the real sticker on HIS guitar read "this MACHINE kills fascists." The difference between the word "machine" and the word "guitar" is the difference between a great and incisive American folk poet and songwriter and a bunch of Hollywood hacks giving you their tone-deaf, overprivileged ideas about some truly great writers and what they once did.

It goes on from there, full of standard-issue Hemingway machismo, as he takes every opportunity to instruct the beautiful, leggy journalist he's left his wife Pauline for. (Pauline, by the way, is pinioned as a devout Catholic and off-hand anti-Semite.) Gellhorn, of course, is guided by the Great Man's tutelage.

Yes, it is often suggested that when the chips were down, she may have been braver and more focused than the drunken genius who became her husband. But when we see him actually writing, the full furious idiocy of "Hemingway and Gellhorn" is brought home big time.

We see Hemingway standing at his desk typing at top speed, like a reporter crashing a deadline story into the paper. The sheets of paper fly out of the typewriter carriage.

No, it isn't mentioned that he indeed typed standing up because he had severe hemorrhoids. The idea, though, that one of the most self-conscious and careful stylists in all of modern literature, ripped pages out of his typewriter lickety split is an absurdity, even if they were meant to be a first draft radically revised several times later.

It is – on film, no less – an illustration usually attributed to Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac's "automatic writing," i.e. "That's not writing, that's typing."

"Hemingway and Gellhorn," sadly, is not a movie about Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, either. It's pure Hollywood and little more.

What IS more – Nicole Kidman as a plausibly heroic Martha Gellhorn – is very much worth your acquaintance.?Owen is just a deep-voiced, ultra-manly actor giving you the Hemingway he's told to embody.

You can, if you want, listen online to the real Hemingway giving his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Listen to the Midwestern accent of the voice. It's the voice of a guy who might own the local hardware store in a Chicago suburb. Instead of pronouncing words with double t's in them as "double d's" on the fly (say the words "little" and "bitter" to yourself and you'll probably hear "liddle" and "bidder"), he is oh-so-finicky about making sure you can hear the double T's.

Ernest Hemingway took words seriously.

Every last one.

For HBO, he's become a macho bore and a speed typist – an auditioner for reality TV perhaps.

Forget the movie Papa. It's Gellhorn who's worth getting to know – as much as this two-and-a-half-hour mistake allows you to.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com