One of the best made-for-television movies of the decade, Pope John Paul II is a pleasurable and memorable film chronicling the remarkable life of Karol Wojtyla, a young Polish Catholic who would one day become Pope. Nominated for a 2006 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, Jon Voight is excellent in his role the Pope in his latter years. Cary Elwes is equally memorable in his portrayal of a young and inspiring Wojtyla. Overall, Pope John Paul II is a well produced and well cast masterpiece about the life of one of the 20th Century’s most influential men. It will cause Catholics to beam with pride that such a man was Pope, as well as inspire non-Catholics with a message of hope and peace and the recognition that, in modern times, great leaders can still triumph over evil.
The film begins with a young Karol Wojtyla (Elwes), a student who aspires to become a noted actor in Poland. During this time in life, Nazi Germany invades the nation, and the complex political and religious implications prompt him to make a series of important decisions in his life. Karol must decide whether to get married or to join the priesthood, and because of his extensive education, he is a rare individual who can warn other workers about the dangers of Communism and all its evils.
Ultimately, Karol chooses the priesthood, and he is taken under the wing of the Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Adam Sapieha (James Cromwell). New priests must be trained in secret, and the religious oppression experienced at the hands of the Nazis doesn’t end with their demise. The Soviet Union continues to use the power of the state to subvert the influence of the church, limiting public gatherings and attempting to curtail the impact of the clergy. Wojtyla immediately sparks the ire of local officials by staging peaceful protests, public religious gatherings, and student retreats. As he rises through the ranks of the Polish church, he becomes one of the most powerful and well-known priests in the nation. The Soviets promote the idea of his being considered as Pope in order to get him out of Poland, but their efforts eventually backfire when the new Pope John Paul II becomes one of the most fierce anti-Communist leaders in the world, backing Lech Walesa (Jacek Lenartowicz) the political leadership of the Polish union Solidarity and preaching a unified message with both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In addition to Communism, Wojtyla’s years as the Pope see him grapple with abortion, September 11th, a failed assassination attempt, and the ill effects of Parkinson’s disease.
Overall, Pope John Paul II is a vivid portrayal of a storybook life. Voight and Elwes are flawless in illustrating the many layers of complexity that formed and molded the personality and ideology of one of the world best loved political and religious figures. Their efforts are complimented by a superb supporting cast that includes veteran actors James Cromwell, Christopher Lee, and Ben Gazzara. The costumes and set design seem to be well-suited the myriad time periods covered, and the chronology of the story as told seems to flow well for a television movie. It’s rare to find a made-for-TV production equal in quality to its big screen counterpart, but viewers can be confident that in this biographical film, they’ll get all the quality and star power of a Hollywood blockbuster.