New docuseries ‘Hemingway’ takes an honest approach to the author’s controversial life

Devon Martinez  

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4 out of 5 stars 

     Honesty is a big theme in the six-hour docuseries “Hemingway,” which attempts to take a deeper look into Ernest Hemingway’s life from birth to death — the author was not always honest with himself, with his loved ones or with the public eye.  

     The docuseries, directed by Ken Burns and Lunn Novick, goes through several contradictions and lies that the great 20th century author spread about himself throughout his life. They attempt to show as much as they can to prove how complicated Hemingway was. They never demonize him for his sins, and they never romanticize him as some great person — they aim to show him in the most honest light.  

     The six hours — split into three episodes called, “A Writer,” “The Avatar” and “The Blank Page” — are never boring, because there is so much material to draw from Hemingway’s life.  

     On the one hand, Hemingway was this larger-than-life, macho figure who loved to fish, hunt big game and box. Burns even referred to his masculine figure as being “toxic” in a recent interview.  

     However, Hemingway was also interested in swapping gender roles with his different wives throughout his life. According to the documentary, he would grow out his hair, ask them to grow out theirs, and then behind closed doors they would call each other by the opposite pronouns. 

     The documentary also points out some of Hemingway’s misogynistic attitudes and the fact that he cheated on all four of his wives. Hemingway detractors continue to call him out today for his presentation of women in his short stories and fiction books.  

     Several voices in the documentary dismiss some of these claims. They admit that he was not always good to women but that some of his stories were progressive in his support of women.  

     They reference his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which a man attempts to convince a woman to have an abortion while they sit at a bar waiting for a train. The word abortion is never mentioned as they talk in code referring to it as an “operation.” The story ends with the woman telling the man to stop talking. She was conflicted because it was her decision, and the man is shown to be a brute. 

     The documentary also shows Hemingway’s love for life and thirst for adventure, while also showing his obsession with suicide — a hard truth that would eventually lead him to take his own life.  

     My guess is that Burns and Novick knew that this would be a long documentary to fully flesh out this one man’s life. This could not have been told in less than six hours, because there is so much to go through. When a man’s entire life involves adventure and heartbreak, it’s tough to fit it all in even under ten hours, especially when the man in question is Hemingway.  

     He joined the Red Cross during World War I and was injured by a bomb that went off near him. He then became a journalist for several magazines and newspapers throughout his life. 

     As a journalist, he still sought the battlefield, covering the Spanish Civil War, which would become the basis for his famous novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He also reported on D-Day and traveled on a boat in the Pacific with several friends to try to find and sink Nazi submarines.  

     That small description does not summarize even one percent of his life. His life was full and impactful. So much so that it still affects readers today, which the documentary confronts. 

     The mini-series asks an important question that needs to be thought out and solved. Why is Hemingway still relevant in 2021 when so many people from the past are being tried in the court of public opinion for their sins? 

      Students still read his novels in school like “The Old Man and the Sea,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Sun Also Rises.” Next year Hollywood is releasing a movie adaption of his least popular novel “Across the River and Into the Trees.” Even “Hemingway” can be seen as yet another example of his unwavering presence.  

     According to the documentary, Hemingway is still around because his work is just as complicated as he was. Hemingway showed the capacity of human behavior, from bravery to cowardice. He was a jerk and a horrible person to some, and a great, loveable individual to others. His work also showed the range of human behavior: from evil to good.  

     And in my humble opinion, in 2021, we need that reminder more than ever. We live in a world that has impossible standards to live by. People make mistakes, but people are capable of succeeding — evil and good. 

     As a fan of the author, I think the documentary is great for its reminder of this lesson Hemingway provided throughout his life. There is no other way to do a documentary but to be completely honest about the person you are divulging. That is exactly what this one did.  

Image courtesy of PBS