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TV's 'Bonnie and Clyde' not quite up to the hype

By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle
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Emile Hirsch and Holliday Grainger play the notorious couple on the two-part miniseries, “Bonnie and Clyde” Dec. 8 and 9 on A&E.

Bonnie and Clyde

Part one, 9 p.m. Sunday; part two, 9 p.m. Monday, History Channel, A&E, Lifetime

“The story of Bonnie and Clyde/ their names are remembered as one.”

The lyric from the old song by Flatt and Scruggs was accurate even before the murderous pair died in storm of bullets in 1934 and is still accurate today. There’s a moment in the new two-part TV film about the duo when Clyde Barrow makes a halfhearted bid for top billing, but we know Bonnie Parker got her way.

The film, starring Emile Hirsch (“Into the Wild”) and Holliday Grainger (“The Borgias”), is directed by Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant”) and airs Sunday and Monday on three channels at the same time: Lifetime, the History Channel and A&E. There’s no reason for anything to air on multiple channels at the same time, especially with the ubiquity of DVRs, but the gimmick is meant to pump “Bonnie and Clyde” up to “TV event” status.

It doesn’t even begin to qualify as that, but it has its moments.

Parker met Barrow in Texas when they were barely out of their teens. She had a passion for writing doggerel poetry and aspired to be a Hollywood actress. He had racked up a string of crimes that got him sent to prison, where he killed a fellow inmate who had repeatedly raped him.

Their crime spree lasted only two years, but Parker and Barrow were quickly mythologized by the press, much as other outlaws became objects of fascination for the Depression-era public. But if some people thought of Bonnie and Clyde as two kids on a bank-robbing lark, defying the economic hard times of the 1930s, public attitude shifted as innocent people began to get killed.

You can’t tell the story of Bonnie and Clyde without mythology, but apparently, you can tell it superficially if you subject it to Beresford’s sometimes goofy direction and a just-adequate script by Joe Batteer and John Rice. The obvious parts of the mythology are here, including Bonnie posing with a cigar in her mouth and her foot perched on a car bumper, and the sensationalism that marked the contemporary press coverage.

But then we get these wacky flourishes from Beresford that seem meant to dump a load of supernatural fatalism on the tale. Clyde, known to his mother (Dale Dickey, “True Blood”) as her “little ray of sunshine,” is said to be gifted with “second sight,” which manifests itself in less than credible visions–an angelic Bonnie gamboling in slow motion in a sunny field even before he’s met her, a fluffy white rabbit staring at Clyde’s bullet-riddled body in a bathtub. There’s also a recurring image of Clyde sitting in a movie theater, watching Bonnie, apparently transformed into Zelda Fitzgerald, ballet dancing in black and white.

The script is workmanlike rather than inspired or in any way profound. It takes a huge leap in the end suggesting that Barrow returned to northern Louisiana in 1934 knowing they’d be ambushed and killed by retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (William Hurt, “The Challenger Disaster”).

It’s impossible to avoid talking about Arthur Penn’s magnificent 1967 “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. While Hollywood recycles stories with dependable regularity, when it’s a film as great as Penn’s, you’d better have something new if you’re going to rework the material.

Beresford and his writers are more faithful to the facts about Bonnie and Clyde, including the inclusion of the severe burns she suffered when their car went off the road. But whatever details the film gets right, its credibility is undermined by those silly second-sight visions.

Both films romanticize the story, but Penn’s film is truer to the mythology and hence is more convincing. Some of that has to do with the performances – Beatty, Dunaway, Gene Hackman as Barrow’s brother Buck and Estelle Parsons as Buck’s wife. But much has to do with Penn’s more sophisticated vision, which is to view the Bonnie and Clyde legend as a product of the times and a real-life manifestation of false hope fed by disillusionment – something Eugene O'Neill would summarize as “pipe dreams” in his play “The Ice Man Cometh.”

Penn’s film, like Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” four years later, was loudly criticized for its violence–not just for its graphic display, but stylizing it, seeming to depict it as beautiful. We see it in the famous long, slow-motion climax as Hamer and his men pump round after round of bullets into Bonnie and Clyde, whose bodies react in a kind of gruesome puppet ballet.

The story of Bonnie and Clyde has been told before and is destined to be told again. This year’s version isn’t the worst telling of it, but it won’t be the last telling. The names will always be remembered as one.

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