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POPE JOHN PAUL II A SIGNIFICANT TV PRESENCE IN DEATH AS IN LIFE.

Byline: David Kronke Television Critic

POPE JOHN PAUL II's declarations on birth control were out of step with Africa's AIDS crisis and a plurality of American Catholics, and his investigation into 2001's priest sex scandal was, to put it charitably, unaggressive. But his fervent championing of human rights, world peace and reaching out to those of other faiths ensured his significance in what can seem an increasingly secular world.

His death this past April - only two other popes had served longer- was greeted with a global outpouring of devotion and grief. He was so beloved, in fact, that two broadcast networks - ABC and CBS - rushed into production biopics on the pontiff's life and good works.

CBS' far superior production was shot in Poland and around the Vatican, where it was screened for the new pope, Benedict XVI. (After mishandling two controversial miniseries biopics, on Ronald Reagan and Adolf Hitler, CBS apparently can't be too careful.) Benedict subsequently blessed the film (so who needs TV critics?). ABC's has no such pedigree, but has the advantage of airing first - tonight, to be precise.

ABC's effort, ``Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II,'' essentially serves as the Cliffs Notes for CBS' ``Pope John Paul II.'' ``Have No Fear'' unspools the best-known moments of the man's life, not unlike a TV commercial for a greatest-hits CD - you get the idea, yet nothing registers long enough to resonate.

By contrast, from the outset, CBS' film makes it clear that this pope will have personality and depth.

In ABC's ``Have No Fear,'' Thomas Kretschmann (``Resident Evil: Apocalypse'' and the upcoming ``King Kong'') - who gives a performance that can only be described as beatific - stars as Karol Wojtyla, who came from a humble Polish upbringing to lead the Church of 1 billion believers.

Through a series of flashbacks, we see his difficult childhood in Poland in a handful of scenes, including one in which he, as a boy, stops a goal during a soccer match - ``It was the hand of God,'' an onlooking child observes, representative of the simplistic approach ABC's movie offers. Much lip service is paid to Wojtyla's ``intellect''; not so much of it is actually depicted.

Both films chart his life in Poland, when the Nazis took control and he was a budding playwright wondering how he could help oust the SS menace. (ABC's film has him getting dumped by a collegiate girlfriend, while CBS' shows him letting her down easy.) But only CBS' vividly conveys how he came to understand the urgency of religious service during wartime and developed his subsequent devotion to human rights.

CBS' miniseries, beginning Sunday and ending on Wednesday, devotes far more care in demonstrating how Wojtyla responded when Communists took control of Poland after World War II and tried to clamp down on its religious freedoms, and how, as pope, he was a burr in the Communist leaders' backsides until the Iron Curtain finally fell.

Cary Elwes portrays Wojtyla for most of Sunday's installment, which ends with the 1978 voting sequence for Pope John Paul I's predecessor, which takes so long that Karol not only transforms into John Paul II but the 43-year-old Elwes transforms into 66-year-old Jon Voight.

Naturally, both films also depict when John Paul II was shot in 1981 and subsequently forgave his aspiring assassin. Even that most dramatic moment is handled in a blase fashion by ABC.

CBS' ``John Paul II'' gives viewers a genuine sense of the man's savvy and wry humor. Elwes is fine in installment one, but Voight really fleshes out his character in the second evening. There's a genuine poignancy in the pope's battle against his infirmities when, as he sees it, there remains so much for him to do.

Both films re-create his last public appearance, when he was incapable to address the assembled masses, but only CBS' carries a true emotional impact. ABC's film is strictly for true devotees, while even non-Catholics can find inspiration in CBS' offering.

Fun fact: Voight and Kretschmann worked together in two 2004 films: ``The Karate Dog'' and ``Super Babies: Baby Geniuses 2.''

David Kronke,(818) 713-3638

david.kronke(at)dailynews.com

HAVE NO FEAR: THE LIFE OF POPE JOHN PAUL II - Two stars

What: Biopic of the recently deceased pontiff.

Where: ABC (Channel 7).

When: 8 tonight.

In a nutshell: Superficial once-over touching on some of the pope's best-known moments.

POPE JOHN PAUL II - Three stars

What: Miniseries about the recently deceased pontiff.

Where: CBS (Channel 2).

When: 9 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Wednesday.

In a nutshell: A much deeper, more heartfelt production than ABC's.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2) Thomas Kretschmann, left, is Pope John Paul II in tonight's ABC special; Jon Voight, right, portrays the aging pontiff in the latter part of CBS' two-night miniseries, Sunday and Wednesday.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 1, 2005
Words:805
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