Picks and Pans Review: The Odyssey of John Dos Passos

updated 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PBS (Check local listings)

B+

While author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "there are no second acts in American lives," one of his literary contemporaries was diligently proving him wrong.

Novelist Dos Passos (1896-1970), author of the ambitious, influential trilogy U.S.A., was the illegitimate son of a prominent Wall Street attorney. Raised in Europe, educated at Choate and Harvard, he was an outspoken leftist and social progressive. A pacifist, he was an ambulance driver during WW I, as were two other writers—e.e. cummings and Ernest Hemingway—with whom Dos Passos had close ties. But later in his life, disgusted by Stalinism and his experience in the Spanish Civil War, Dos Passos became staunchly anticommunist and a contributor to conservative journals.

Narrated by Robert MacNeil (have you ever noticed how much the PBS newsman's voice resembles that of Peter Jennings?), the film uses the observations of biographers, friends and literary critics along with photos and germane period clips to paint a vivid picture of the man and his times. But what sets this film apart are William Hurt's evocative readings of Dos Passos's own words.

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