Rated R. Running time: 1 hours 37 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star Rating (1-5): 4
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers,
flees like a shadow and does not last.
For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they?
Job 14:1-3; 7-10
Do not let the critics who have dismissed this film with negative or tepid reviews keep you from seeing it. I found it a fascinating study of a high achiever about whose life the author of Ecclesiastes would still have said, “vanity of vanities.” The film tells the story of the mentoring relationship between newspaper reporter Denne Bart Petitclerc and writer Ernest Hemingway in the later 50s when the world famous writer was living in Cuba. Indeed Petitclerc wrote the script for this film, but died in 2006 before it could go into production. In the film his name is changed to Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), and his employer The Miami Herald becomes The Miami Globe.
The film begins in the newsroom where Eddie, as he prefers to be called, has finished still another version of a letter to his favorite author, but tucks it away into one of Hemingway’s novels he keeps on his desk, rather than sending it. Fortunately colleague and sweetheart Debbie Hunt (Minka Kelly) reads it and, without telling him because of his earlier objections, sends it. When Eddie receives a telephone call from Hemingway (Adrian Sparks), he is surprised, even thinking someone might be playing a practical joke on him, but when the caller praises the letter, realizes it must be his idol. Hemmingway suggests they go fishing, the stunned Eddie quickly accepting the offer.
He proves inept at first at fishing, but under the gentle guidance of the author he improves. He even manages to dock the boat under his new friend’s instruction. There follows a series of short and long visits, this time to Hemingway’s home at the spacious Finca Vigia (“Lookout Farm”). Eddie’s first view of the writer’s wife Mary is embarrassing for him because she, not noticing his approach, strips away her beach towel and plunges naked into their large swimming pool. When she sees the visitor, she puts him at ease, assuring him that soon he will get used to nude bathing—and he does, with Hemmingway also preferring to swim in the buff.
Hemingway soon becomes mentor and father figure for the young man who had been abandoned by his real father in a department store when he was 5 years old. At one meal attended by the writer’s old Spanish Civil War friends Eddie reports that he has sold his first short story. Happy for him, Hemmingway asks who bought it. He has to coax out of the shy man the information that it was a very small journal, and then Hemmingway asks how much. Almost ashamedly the guest says it was $43. The writer of A Farewell to Arms says that he received just $15 for his first piece of writing, that you did better. Everyone laughs at this, leaving the young man very much at ease and encouraged.
After several visits Eddie also sees the darker side of his idol and of the marriage. Mary, worried that her husband has been in another of his deep depressions, recruits Eddie and his Spanish Civil War buddies to surprise her husband on his birthday with a humorous musical review. This does bring him out so that he can laugh and enjoy the lavish meal. However as he waxes about the glorious past she beings to needle him. He accuses him of boring them. Their exchanges grow so bitter that they start shouting at one another in front of everyone, the war of words ending only when she breaks into sobs and rushes into her bedroom.
Several times we see Hemmingway standing before his portable typewriter, a blank sheet of paper ready for his input. It has been a year or more, and the words will not come to him. The author also owns a luger which he often fondles, loading and cocking it at times. Alone, he places the barrel of the gun in his mouth. In the most intense scene of the film Hemingway, gun in hand, is surrounded by Mary, Eddie, and Hemmingway’s close friend, the poet Evan Shipman (Shaun Toub). Each tries to talk him out of his decision to take his own life, Eddie simply saying, “Because I love you.”
Thanks to his many visits to Cuba Eddie makes a name for himself as a reporter because Papa had earlier led his young friend to a shoot out between student supporters of Fidel Castro and the government troops. The two become eyewitnesses to the killing of the students, watching helplessly as an officer shoots the wounded students as they are lying on the pavement. His stories about the advance of Castro are carried on his newspaper’s front pages.
Other sequences, more in the thriller than the dramatic genre, include
-the late night murder by government agents of Hemmingway’s good friend Lucas.
-Mafia leader Santo Trafficante, Jr. (James Remar) calls Eddie out late one other night to tell Eddie that the FBI has been working with the Cuban government to keep the author under surveillance in the hope of catching him running guns.
-While out fishing with Eddie and Mary he almost is caught when in the distance a Cuban patrol boat is spotted approaching them. Sure enough, the FBI agent is aboard with Cuban police agents. Hemmingway and friends barely have time to surreptitiously throw overboard a small arsenal before they are boarded.
-Oh yes, there also is the subplot back in Miami of Debbie and Eddie’s romance. Uncertain about marriage, he is helped by his mentor’s advice to think carefully about such a major decision, but then to act on his decision, not put it off.
The film is the first Hollywood feature filmed entirely on location in Havana since 1959. They were able even to use the Hemingway home at Finca Vigia, which is now a museum. We see a famous writer who for several decades defined what a man should be: tough, given to few words, and ready for action. And yet not tough enough to withstand the demon of depression, despite being surrounded by people who loved and respected him. We easily see why men loved him—he gave himself to his companions, reveling in story telling and drinking. And we can understand why Mary stayed with him despite their intense feuds. Some have thought he had bipolar disorder, as evidenced by his intense, rapid mood swings, from laughter and high spirits to aggressive anger to suicidal depression.
Eddie finds himself the object of that raging anger when his mentor, having heard about his meeting with the FBI agent and later with the Mafia don, accuses him of betrayal and orders him out of the house, even though it was raining hard. Then, apprised of the facts, he apologizes.
During his apology Hemmingway reveals why the FBI has been wanting to destroy his reputation. He had learned a number of years ago of J. Edgar Hoover’s sexual perversions, and when someone was praising Hoover as a great man, Hemmingway spewed out what he knew about the him. Ever since that incident he has been a target of the Director’s hatred.
Eddie is privileged to enter the life of his idol during his last declining years. From what he experiences we begin to understand a little of what ate away at Hemmingway’s resolve to live, namely his inability to write any more. For a man with a damaged body no longer able to go himself on any more of the journeys he had enjoyed so much, writing was everything, and not to be able to exercise that gift must have been devastating. We should be grateful that Denne Bart Petitclerc chose to share his experience. Especially those of us who also have benefitted from the stories and novels, so many of which we have seen unfold on the big screen.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of Visual Parables