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Love Feuds and Blood Feuds: HBO's Hemingway Gellhorn, History's Hatfields McCoys

Date May 28, 2012

Hemingway & Gellhorn

You can almost hear echoes of Bogie and Bacall as the rugged author taunts his ravishing muse: "There's nothing to writing, Gellhorn. All you do is sit down at your typewriter and bleed."

Ernest "Papa" Hemingway, embodied with maximum swagger by the charismatic Clive Owen, rarely sits. He stands over his machine, typing like a man possessed, when he isn't consumed with lust for Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn, the leggy and resourceful beauty he has brought along to the Spanish Civil War to be a fellow eyewitness and chronicler of history.

Their robust, tempestuous love story is the basis of HBO's woozy and often intoxicating Hemingway & Gellhorn (Monday, 9/8c), a sprawling docudrama (overlong at 160 minutes) about glamorous world adventurers whose weapons are words. The star power here is formidable as the pungent script makes explicit their passion for each other — in one memorably torrid scene, their bedroom antics are only heightened by the bombs showering plaster dust over their naked bodies. But even as war brings out the best in their talents, these literary pugilists tend to bring out the worst in each other.

"Love? Oh, must we?" sighs an aged Gellhorn, narrating the story with a blunt lack of sentiment about her memories. "Action: Now that was something to be shared."

Director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) often inserts these combative lovers Zelig-style into the action with digital magic, as the film takes on a vintage newsreel quality and there they are (and so are we) in Spain, in Finland for the Russian invasion, at Omaha Beach for D-Day. They're always where the action is, because (as Gellhorn voice-overs) "the greatest enemy of love is boredom." Sure enough, as Gellhorn's independence clashes with Hemingway's boozing and philandering machismo, Papa's prediction comes to pass: "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know." While it lasts, though, it's great fun.

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Whereas in History's three-part, six-hour Hatfields & McCoys (Monday-Wednesday, 9/8c), there's not a glimmer of lightness, let alone glamour, in the grim tidings of this legendary family feud. The lavishly star-laden production recalls the glory days of the classic historical miniseries, though few were ever this relentlessly downbeat.

Bad blood is freely and often spilled in this account of frontier justice gone awry between two families — the Hatfields of West Virginia and the hard-luck McCoys of Kentucky — who suffer the sins of their fathers' pride. The conflict begins when Devil Anse Hatfield (a gravely stoic Kevin Costner) abandons the Confederate cause before the Civil War ends, leaving his self-righteous buddy Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton, masterfully angst-ridden) to be imprisoned and broken, nursing a grudge that's further inflamed by post-war business and legal hostilities.

Tragedy begets tragedy with biblical severity as brawls turn deadly, and payback consumes even the innocent as ruthless bounty hunters enter the fray. As History continues to experiment with scripted drama — their first effort, the derivative and dreary The Kennedys, ended up airing on Reelz — the channel may have hit pay dirt with a gritty project that feels like the real McCoy.

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