frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

press reaction

San Franciso Chronicle John Carman

"...'The Millennial Pope' may be too much of a slog for any viewer who isn't rabidly interested in the subject. That is, until it soars heavenward in the final 30 minutes or so.

[Producer] Whitney seems to step out from behind a biographical program and addresses John Paul II's powerful faith. In fact, 'The Millennial Pope' suddenly becomes a paean to religious faith, period, and one of the most extraordinary segments of TV programming I've ever seen.

With deep feeling and uncommon articulateness, four people talk about the experience of the divine. Or about the quest for it. They're physicist David Berlinski, feminist writer Germaine Greer, singer Andrea Marcovicci and Romanian priest Raymond Braga, who was imprisoned for 11 years by the Communists.

A show that was thoughtful and good, if pokey and limited in viewer appeal, abruptly transforms itself into something else altogether.

It's almost like witnessing a miracle. Can you find that anywhere else on your TV tonight?"


"No papal portrait could come to win the blessing of every viewer. Some will be disappointed that this 'Frontline' special doesn't canonize John Paul II; others will think it gives him too much credit. The two and a half hour documentary achieves an admirable balance, faulting the Pope in a number of areas but keeping an open mind on the question of whether his rigidity is founded on the rock of eternal truth.

Producer Helen Whitney's film is at its best in showing how the Pope's actions and attitudes have been shaped by the history he lived through as Karol Wojtyla, Polish citizen and priest...

Closing with an exploration of the mystery of faith, the film becomes not just a life story but a stimulant for religious dialogue. Bottom Line: Biography with cardinal virtues."

The Atlanta Constitution Drew Jubera

"Within the first few minutes of tonight's subversively straight-ahead 'Frontline' Pope John Paul II is portrayed as a macho pope, the only pope in history who has written about the female orgasm as a good thing, a pope who is bringing down the church, the first modern man to become pope and the reincarnation of the warrior popes of the Renaissance.

It's the achievement of 'John Paul II: The Millennial Pope,' which opens the 18th season of PBS' 'Frontline,' that it can accommodate these contradictions and still create a picture that makes sense.

In an age when TV news-magazines have been 'Datelined' to within an inch of their lives, the observation-rich, talking-head style of this 'Frontline' feels novel and bold. It's a triumph of substance over style--stylishly done.

Only near the end of its two and a half overlong hours does 'Pope' jump track. It loses itself in the Big Questions that surround belief and faith and what it all means; it's as if it wants to answer these questions for itself, rather than to illuminate its subject."

Boston Herald Monica Collins

"Tonight, there is the rarest TV event--a spiritual journey. PBS' epic examination of Pope John Paul, 'John Paul II: The Millennial Pope' challenges you to think, to examine your own beliefs and to forget, for two and a half hours, that you're watching television. Instead, you become involved, absorbed...

[Producer] Whitney's work is exhaustive. The documentary features much archival footage, dramatic pictures, many interviews with articulate sources -- even the music laced through the film is well chosen and expressive. Rarely does television present a definitive document. 'John Paul II: The Millennial Pope' has the look and feel of something bound to endure...

'John Paul II: The Millennial Pope' pays homage to the good man but questions his motives, his human weakness. The documentary, while thoroughly honorable, is not a puff piece, nor is it a trashing. Because of the edges, you can watch the film and think your way through it. None of the information is wrapped up in a TV-glossy package, none of it is overly sentimentalized. 'Frontline' deserves much praise for singling out a man for the 20th century and presenting his story with so much dignity and intelligence.

Television rarely goes this deep to examine issues of faith and conscience. When it does, the impact is strong, resonant and memorable."

The New York Times Walter Goodman

"Tonight's thoughtful 'Frontline' portrait of John Paul II presents the popular Pope as a man resisting, in the name of the church he leads, many of the century's movements of which he despairs...

Helen Whitney, the producer of 'John Paul II: The Millennial Pope,' begins with sensitively evoked scenes of the Poland in which Karol Wojtyla grew up and the religious traditions that in time drew him to the priesthood. Anti-Semitism was prevalent, and although the young man had many Jewish acquaintances, during the Nazi occupation, says Arthur Hertzberg, a professor of Jewish studies at New York University, 'He did not defy the Nazis in any overt way,' and did nothing to save their victims.

Yet after the war he earned a reputation for helping Jews, and as Pope he has made several gestures like declaring anti-Semitism to be a sin, that suggest a recognition that his church had failed during the Holocaust...

Ms. Whitney concludes her otherwise illuminating biography with the purported spiritual experiences of Robert Stone, Germaine Greer, the cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci and others. Whatever one makes of them, they tell little about the Pope. But the rest of these insightful and provocative two and a half hours easily make up for that lapse."

The Boston Globe Don Aucoin

"Though its attempt to be a 'thematic biography' sometimes results in missteps, overall this is an ambitious, nuanced, and absorbing attempt to illuminate the man born Karol Wojtyla 79 years ago.

The passions John Paul II evokes are on display here: Full voice is given to the pope's adherents and slightly fuller voice to his critics. The former argue that he is a pope for the ages who has forced the world to think about faith in a new way, while the latter find him retrograde in his opposition to reproductive rights, to the ordination of women, and to modernity in general.

But neither camp finds it easy to understand or to explain the scholar, poet, athlete, and actor who ascended to the seat of the Catholic Church...

The documentary loses focus near its end, in a section titled 'Faith.' In an attempt to create a 'spiritual encounter' with John Paul II--who is not interviewed--Whitney includes the lengthy ruminations of faith of others, including authors Germaine Greer and Robert Stone and cabaret performer Andrea Marcovicci. It creates a disjointed effect.

On balance, though, 'The Millennial Pope' succeeds in finding provocative ways to make you think. Not unlike its subject."

United Press Syndicate Kevin McDonough

"Profound, spiritually moving, intellectually challenging and thoroughly compelling, 'John Paul II: The Millennial Pope' is a spellbinding documentary. Using the pope's life story as its canvas, the film looks at some of the greatest tragedies and most confounding spiritual paradoxes of the 20th century..."

The Orlando Sentinel Hal Boedeker

"'The Millennial Pope' is a supreme example of talking-head television, with roughly 30 speakers offering their interpretations of Karol Wojtyla and the pope he became.

Sometimes incisive, sometimes windy, the program gives viewers too much to ponder in one sitting...'The Millennial Pope' is most successful when it sticks to the pope. When it tires for broader themes, for the 'us' angle, the program sags.

That's especially true in the faith chapter, when feminist Germaine Greer, novelist Robert Stone, conductor Gilbert Levine and singer Andrea Marcovicci describe their personal experiences. Going off on this tangent so late in the program is ill-advised."

Detroit Free Press David Crumm

"What is remarkable about this documentary is that its producer, Helen Whitney, didn't get lost in the visual grandeur of the papacy. Sure, there are striking images of John Paul as he addresses adoring multitudes or pauses in prayer. But Whitney goes beyond these superficial scenes.

John Paul's story is carved into seven subjects.

The first four are historical, focusing on: Poland, his homeland; the Holocaust, which he witnessed and which transformed him into a pioneer in interfaith relations; Solidarity, the Polish labor movement that helped to topple communism; and Liberation Theology, a Latin political movement John Paul tried to crush.

The final three chapters are less biography than they are provocative meditation on themes that shaped John Paul's papacy...

This is designed to make us think and, in the end, to leave us deep in meditation about the direction in which our world is spinning. At least that's Whitney's goal in this massive production, and she is likely to succeed with many viewers."

Rocky Mountain News, Denver Dusty Saunders

"There are TV biographies and there there's tonight's illuminating 'Frontline' study about the life and impact of Pope John Paul II...

'The Millennial Pope' is remarkable television on several levels.

This is the type of biographical programming that television should create regularly--an evocative, in-depth report full of fascinating photographs, imaginative video, emotional music and a wide variety of interviews.

Such interviews are the key.

Traveling around the world for a year, Whitney obtained commentary from religious figures, journalists, scholars, scientists, politicians and individuals who grew up with Karol Wojtyla in his native Poland.

'The Millennial Pope' is also a tribute to religious faith without dealing in the platitudes of 'Touched by an Angel' or the familiar high-pitched lectures found on religious channels.

'The Millennial Pope' is not a 'Catholic show.' Nor is it anti-Catholic, as some might fear. This is a balanced, at times reverential look at a leader whose policies have endeared him to many and angered those (inside and outside the Catholic Church) who disagree with him...

...This is an intriguing, thought-provoking documentary that raises questions about faith, life and death that affect our daily lives."

The Sun, Baltimore Chris Kaltenbach

"Rather than a simple look at what John Paul has done, the filmmakers try to discover the whys behind his papacy: Why has he chosen to so vigorously pursue a better relationship with the Jewish people? What is behind his unyielding stand against women priests? What made him so hesitant to embrace the liberation theology that gave hope to the masses in South America? Why does he believe the 20th century is among the most perilous the world has ever faced?...

The program should have looked more closely at his stand against female priests (one woman's tearful explanation of why she feels betrayed by her church is among the documentary's most emotional moments) and any sort of birth control, controversial positions that some critics charge belie his reputation as a crusader for human rights. But the filmmakers do a respectable job of showing the complexities, and seeming contradictions, that John Paul brings to his job."

The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Renee Peck

"The PBS series 'Frontline' tackles a daunting task for the first episode of the new season: the psychoanalysis of a pope. And for those who wonder what makes the most powerful man of the century tick, this two and a half hour intellectual profile will serve.

'John Paul II: The Millennial Pope' follows a philosophical timeline rather than a chronological one. The creators of this innovative, if undeniably heavy, biography paint a psychological portrait of a man filled with contradictions, deeply faithful, at war with his own era...

...'Frontline' has a reputation for sophisticated reporting, which is very much in evidence here. But we hear little from John Paul II himself. A paltry few of his poems, writings and speeches are excerpted...

There is plenty to ponder in 'Frontline's' papal expose, but conclusions are left to the viewer. Reaching those conclusions, like watching the program itself, requires both concentration and deep thinking."

Entertainment Weekly Eileen Clarke

"This profile has loads of interesting tidbits: The Pope was an excellent soccer goalie, poet, and director of plays; his traditional view of women may be related to losing his mother at age 8; he believes the Virgin Mary saved him from an assassin. Missing, though, is an examination of the controversial decision to pick the first non-Italian pope since the 15th century."

The Wall Street Journal

"This often revelatory 'Frontline' portrait of Pope John Paul II, produced by Helen Whitney, reveals, as well, the world-view of its makers, their disappointment or frustration that this pope who, in the beginning, 'did seem a pope for our time...would soon emerge as a man standing against time.' Thus, while the film is largely respectful of or laudatory about his stands on the Jews, against Soviet communism and against the death penalty, it finds no defenders of the pontiff's firm stands against, for example, Marxist liberation theology in Latin America and an opening of the priesthood to women, dismissing him instead as parochial, stubborn and naive.

Still, it probes far deeper than the usual TV profile..."

Houston Chronicle Ann Hodges

"PBS' 'Frontline' presents a brilliant journey through the 20th century to engage the mind and touch the soul.

It's the journey of 'John Paul II: The Millennial Pope.' And it is a fascinating and provocative exploration of the forces that shaped his character and faith...

In the end, 'Frontline's' unique and introspective portrait offers powerful insights, indeed, on his vision of the church and his own papacy."

The Philadelphia Inquirer Jonathan Storm

"One of television's treasures, PBS's 'Frontline' begins its new season tonight with a stunning profile of Pope John Paul II, the 'modern man' pope who has been fighting modernity almost nonstop since his election in 1978.

It is the kind of thought-provoking production that beams almost routinely out of the 'Frontline' offices at Boston's WGBH-TV and is ipso facto refutation to those who smugly insist that TV is a waste of time.

John Paul himself, this program demonstrates, has spent his time trying to shake humanity from the smug torpor of the 20th century, which he characterizes as the most evil in history. He has undertaken a difficult challenge, but, then, he could not choose his playing field...

Like so many PBS specials, this two and a half hour 'Frontline' beginning at 9 PM, also runs nearly into Letterman-Leno time, when many people who might be provoked into reflection are instead turning off their lights and their brains in anticipation of the coming workday. It will be their loss."

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