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Too good to be true

Biopics make Pope John Paul II so saintly, he's boring

No one expects a TV movie about Pope John Paul II to denigrate him, not eight months after his death and, frankly, not ever -- unless, of course, it was produced by Sinead O'Connor.

But in the two biopics that air over the next week, first from ABC and then CBS, the late pontiff is so irreproachable, so unerring in his holy stances, he's a bit of a drag. Except for rich moments from Jon Voigt, who plays CBS's pope with a dry, playful humor, he's portrayed as too good to be true, too lily-white to be dramatically interesting.

With John Paul II now on track for sainthood, and with followers still mourning his death, ABC and CBS overcautiously present him as a cipher amid the disquiet of 20th-century history, including the Nazi invasion of Poland. The two networks know who the audience for these movies will probably be, and pander to them. They ignore the fact that all human beings -- even heroes -- have moments of doubt, anger, and conflict.

It's not surprising that network TV has rushed to build a shrine to the late pontiff, given the broad popularity of John Paul II and the huge viewership for his funeral. But saintliness and godliness don't make very thrilling TV, which may be why both projects have ended up outside November sweeps, which ended yesterday. They're hagiographic bores. ABC's ''Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II," tonight at 8 on Channel 5, turns the pope into a pious stick figure. And CBS's ''John Paul II," a two-part miniseries that begins Sunday at 9 on Channel 4, gives us the man's long journey from virtuous to very virtuous to so virtuous he becomes the captain of world virtuousness. Neither man is very real.

The more watchable of the two is ''John Paul II." Cary Elwes turns into Jon Voigt as Karol Wojtyla turns into John Paul II, which occurs early in part 2 (which airs next Wednesday). You can at least take this version seriously, unlike ''Have No Fear," which is laughably shallow. ''John Paul II" begins with his attempted assassination in 1981, then flashes back through his life. It emphasizes the impact of the Nazis, and later the Communists, on gentle Karol, as they trip up his plans to go into the theater. ''Faced with this abyss of evil, I can only respond with an abyss of love," he tells his friends as he embarks on his religious career.

Elwes, who played the lead in Mel Brooks's ''Robin Hood: Men in Tights" in 1993, is an awkward choice as Wojtyla from age 18 to 50. He brings a sort of boho inner glow to the man, who romps through the forest talking about sexuality with his adoring students. But he projects a sheer passivity that undermines Wojtyla's personal power.

It's a good thing Voigt steps into the role once Wojtyla becomes pope. It's an awkward casting shift in the movie; but then Voigt brings a much needed depth and willpower to the man. Voigt has the all-important sparkle in his eyes, and yet enough gravitas to make John Paul II seem larger than life. And Voigt's physical transformation, as the pope becomes bent with Parkinson's disease and other illnesses, is impressive. Ian Holm was originally cast, but Voigt is just right.

It's easy to imagine an actor like Voigt playing a more richly written pope. He has the potential to invest an enormous amount of intensity into scenes of the Catholic leader facing his foes on issues such as abortion, the death penalty, the denial of the Eucharist to politicians, birth control, stem-cell research, and pedophile priests. But the miniseries either skims over or ignores these subjects, not wanting to harsh the pope's mellow, or that of any viewers. It sticks to Nazi and religious oppression, which are much safer foes.

''Have No Fear" makes the CBS miniseries seem like an intimate profile. The movie merely leapfrogs through the pope's days. The milestones fly by: His mother dies, he loves the theater, he falls for a Jewish actress, his father dies, the Nazis invade, the Communists oppress, and so on. None of these big moments are invested with distinction or flavor; they're just entries to be checked off a list. The action only briefly dips into controversy, as it shows the pope rejecting Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero before Romero is assassinated.

Thomas Kretschmann, best recalled, ironically, for his role as a Nazi in ''The Pianist," brings a stubborn inscrutability to the man, both before and after he becomes the pope. He delivers a leader who is so modest he has practically no personality or spirit. Kretschmann just moves through the movie's scenarios with a grimly beatific expression, as the aging makeup works its magic on his face.

Being nice is overrated, especially when it comes to movies. ABC and CBS make Pope John Paul II into a cardboard leader, and in the process they diminish both his charisma and his complex role in history. He deserves better, and so do viewers.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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