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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Doubt Grows

I was originally going to devote a column to Doubt about three weeks ago, but I’m really glad that I didn’t. That extra time allowed the film to marinate a little bit longer in my mind, which turned out to be necessary for me to come to my ultimate conclusion. With most films, my reaction as soon as I walk out the door is likely to be the lasting impression I have of it; but every once in a while, a film will come along that while I might like it to begin with, it gets better as I replay it in my mind. But let me back up here for a minute.

John Patrick Shanley is a name that brings a smile to my face because when I was growing up, I would watchJoe Versus the Volcano, his first film as a director, over and over again. By that point he’d already won an Academy Award for writing Moonstruck, but as a kid and then later as I grew up, it was Joe that stuck with me. I was surprised as I got older to discover that I’m in the minority with that particular opinion; others were not as moved by the oddball film. I saw it as a parable for the enduring power of love and how if you really love somebody dearly, you’re willing to do anything for them even if it doesn’t make sense, including thrusting yourself into a pit of boiling lava. Getting Joe to the island is a fun adventure to be sure, but it’s all about that moment when Joe stands above the volcano; he thinks he’s going to die one way or another, but Patricia doesn’t think she has a fatal illness. So when she decides she wants to jump into that volcano with Joe it’s because she doesn’t want to live a minute longer than him. That’s true love, wrapped up in one of the most off-beat comedy ever made.

Shanley did a solid adaptation of Alive and penned the hilarious adaptation Congo – what, it wasn’t a comedy? – but he hadn’t directed another film. When I spoke to him for a podcast, it became more clear why, but needless to say I was astounded to hear that he was getting back behind the camera.

I had never seen the play Doubt despite hearing rave reviews from some of my theater-buff friends, so I didn’t have that as a frame of reference when I sat down to watch the film. I think that kind of threw me off a bit because instead of comparing it to the original play, I couldn’t stop comparing it to the film version of Agnes of God, which was also based on a play. As a result, my immediate reaction to Doubt was that it was very stagey for much of its running time and not very cinematic. Agnes of God is similarly stagey, but it’s such a pulpy script and there are quite a few scenes outside the walls of the convent. But both films had a major asset in the form of their photographers; Agnes had the master Sven Nykvist and Doubt has the incomparable Roger Deakins.

There are a few crane shots and a few steadicam shots, but quite often the movements of the camera aren’t so noticeable. But what stays are the images of the nuns and the priest and I couldn’t figure out why Meryl Streep’s face was so powerful until Shanley made me realize it’s the way Deakins framed her face. Her black uniform covers everything but her face and the backgrounds are a bit brighter, making her face pop out.

But that’s just a surface issue that I originally had with the film that wound up changing as the time passed. The more important things are the content, the subtext and the performances and while I was pleased with each of those things initially, they become more and more powerful in the weeks that followed.

For the uninitiated, the film is set in a Catholic school in Bronx, 1964. During this time of racial tension, the school has admitted a young black student named Donald. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes a particular interest in Donald, a interest that seems a bit funny to Sister James (Amy Adams). When Sister James confesses her feelings of uncertainty about Father Flynn and Donald’s relationship to the severe Sister Aloysius (Streep), Sister Aloysius confronts Father Flynn, and the priest refuses to explain his actions. This, of course, causes Sister Aloysius to become certain of Flynn’s guilt. The audience, however, should be a bit unsure.

It is definitely clear, based on the long stretches of wonderful dialogue and few sets, that this was a film based on a play. And for the first few days, that was an issue for me. But that changed dramatically as I began to think about each scene and each line a little bit differently. I came out of the film positively sure that I knew what happened and then, ironically enough, doubt crept into my mind. And once I realized that I was having serious doubts, as a viewer, about what had happened, it made me reconsider the entire film in a new light.

Right at the beginning of the film, Father Flynn gives a rousing sermon about doubt and the dangers of it. And it was something that I listened to, but didn’t really heed, not realizing that this was the film’s way of giving you an instruction manual right upfront. It is our natural inclination to see things in black-and-white, deciding whether or not someone is right or wrong, innocent or guilty based on the information we are given. Even in our court system, we are only supposed to convict someone if we believe they are guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Yet we seldom express our feelings of doubt; in fact, just look at this past election where we had two candidates who didn’t seem to have a single doubt about anything. Isn’t that kind of scary?

Later on, in one of the most riveting pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen all year, Father Flynn gives another sermon that is clearly directed at Sister Aloysius but contains one of the most searing lessons I’d ever heard about gossip. The combination of the writing, Hoffman’s delivery and the brief flashes of feathers floating across a cityscape is one of the most perfect, goosebump-inducing scenes you will see this year.

Which brings me to the acting. Oh, the acting! Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep are acting legends for a reason and this film shows us why. In every scene they have together, it’s like watching Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson going head-to-head, improving each other’s performances by constantly giving as actors. Just watch Hoffman’s face when he’s not speaking a line, when he’s listening to Streep talk. I’ve been a fan of Hoffman since Boogie Nights, and the best performance I had ever seen him give was on stage in True West withJohn C. Reilly. Well, it was the best until now. Hoffman is terrific in Capote and Magnoliaand Happiness and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, but this is the finest he has ever been and that’s saying a lot.

I don’t know that I can say the same about Streep because Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are hard to top. But she is her usual magnificent self in this film. And the amazing thing to me is that she has the most difficult arc to play in the film because her character actually grows over the running time just a tiny bit until she reaches the shattering conclusion, which is the best, most devastating ending I’ve seen on screen all year.

Many folks have been raving about Viola Davis’ turn as Donald’s mother and she is indeed terrific in her two scenes. But to me she was just a nice addition rather than the spoon that stirs the pot like Hoffman and Streep. Amy Adams, on the other hand, isn’t being talked about enough and her performance grew the most for me in the past few weeks. She has the role of the innocent who witnesses these people of God that do some questionable things, and I think it’s a powerful thing that these questionable activities do make her question her loyalty to God. And Adams could have played this role as nothing but a naïf, but she instead imbues Sister James with feistiness and a knowing smile that belies her naivety.

Ultimately, Doubt raises a lot more questions than it does answers, and those are the kinds of movies that stick with you. John Patrick Shanley’s words are beautiful and I think this is a film that will continue to grow for me and others over the years as it plays on television. I think television will actually improve the experience people have watching this film, the smaller screen seeming to be a better fit for all the talk. But that should not take away the accomplishment that this film is for the big screen.

I expect this film will be a big player at the Oscars, especially in the acting categories, but the more important thing is that it will be a lasting motion picture. The issues on the surface of this film and just below are ones that will continue to be a part of our national – and international – discussions: tolerance, doubt, faith, etc. This might seem like a small film, but make no mistake about it: the very meaning of existence is being fought out on the screen. And it’s riveting.

– Noah Forrest
December 9, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon