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20081212-judgment-and-doubt-by-jeffrey-overstreetBe sure you get tickets for two of this month’s new releases: Frost/Nixon and Doubt. Both films were adapted from celebrated stage plays by their original playwrights. Both are dramatic, intense, and powerfully acted. And you’ll find that each follows a crusader obsessed with exposing the ugly truth by wringing an admission of guilt from an abuser of authority.

And yet, they’re so very different.

Audiences are already enjoying Frost/Nixon, the latest Oscar-season entry from the Academy Award-winning director of A Beautiful Mind—Ron Howard. Howard directs Peter Morgan’s drama about the famous showdown between BBC talk show host David Frost and the former U.S. President Richard Nixon soon after Nixon resigned in disgrace.

This face-off is brought to life by the talented Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. Sheen makes us feel Frost’s frustrations just as palpably as he captured the trials of Tony Blair in Peter Morgan’s last film, The Queen. Even more impressive, Langella delivers a Nixon of complexity, rage, and fiendish cleverness.

Their interviews are staged like the boxing matches in Howard’s previous film, Cinderella Man. And if we’re drawn to the edges of our seats, it’s not because we don’t know how it ends. We all know that Tricky Dick will sink like the Titanic, but there’s pleasure in anticipating his spectacular disintegration. We want justice, but we also want the catharsis of seeing a deceitful, manipulative, irresponsible president go down in disgrace.

Howard knows this. And he makes sure that we cannot miss the parallels he’s drawing between Nixon’s handling of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Watergate, and President George W. Bush’s handling of Iraq, Afghanistan, and threats to Americans’ civil rights. You can almost predict the political speeches we’ll hear at the Oscars or the Golden Globes if Frost/Nixon wins anything.

I’m not saying there aren’t parallels. Of course there are. But Howard’s approach seems too easy, and rather unhelpful. Frost/Nixon has all the subtlety of a bumper sticker: “Bush Lied, People Died.” Dubya-haters will nod grimly at this affirmation of their contempt. To me, it felt like easy crowd-pleasing—a gross oversimplification of complicated matters.

Nixon’s harrowing moments of self-realization are likely to kindle some pity for the ex-President. But Howard’s too keen on giving viewers what they want, so he sends us off with a simplistic and damning epilogue. He tells us that Frost went on to grace the covers of popular magazines, while Nixon’s only legacy was that the suffix “-gate” would be given to any event of political wrongdoing.

So the film ends with a cheap shot that allows us to feel smug as the credits roll. It’s the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from Howard, who demonstrates he’s learned a lesson that Frost learns early in the movie: “The American people want a conviction, plain and simple.”

It’s true. Most audiences enjoy plain, simple convictions. They get them on any number of prime time television dramas every evening.

But perhaps what we want and what we need have been confused. It’s one thing to desire justice and then celebrate a criminal’s ruination. It’s quite another to live out all three elements of Scripture’s call to “seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly….”

Doubt, from John Patrick Shanley (his first film since Joe vs. the Volcano), begins when the timid Sister James (Amy Adams) observes the parish priest, Father Brendan (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in some suspicious behavior, and reports it to her superior, the imperious Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep).

But does it really begin there? Sister Aloysius already suspects wrongdoing in Father Brendan, and this only fans the flames of her presumption. She launches into a vigorous investigation, her suspicions congealing into a dangerous certainty. Their inevitable clash is one of the most compelling interrogations since Tom Cruise took on Jack Nicholson in Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men.

But where Reiner’s famous showdown ended with the villain losing his composure, and thus the match, Doubt leads us to reflect on the poison of gossip, the wages of arrogance, and the virtues of doubt. Shanley cautions us against hardening our hearts in the name of justice. There’s a difference between being right and being, if you will, “damned right.”

I suspect that many will leave disappointed, even upset, by Shanley’s refusal to settle for some simplistic “Gotcha!” scene. Just as many were confounded by the lack of closure in No Country for Old Men, so they’re likely to wonder if a reel went missing at the end of Doubt. Who wins in the end?

But I need films that subvert my desire to divide people into white hats and black hats. It’s cathartic to watch villains exposed, but reading Proverbs 24 this week, I was reminded that it offends God when I rejoice at the destruction of my enemy. Perhaps that’s because he has every right to cast me down on my knees for my own failures and mistakes. I should approve of a crook’s conviction, but I should also hope for repentance and grace.

Frost/Nixon narrows in its judgmental conclusion. By contrast, Doubt opens up. I come away with meaningful questions, not just an answer I already knew going in. Where one film leaves me looking down at a man disgraced, the other calls me to search my own heart.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet

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