Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 8:39 pm on January 18, 2009

Two high-profile late-year releases were adaptations of successful stage plays. I thought I’d review them together, since they share a similar pedigree and dialogue-heavy format.

Status: In limited release (opened 12/12/08)
Directed By: John Patrick Shanley
Written By: John Patrick Shanley
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

The poster for John Patrick Shanley’s big-screen reprisal of his award-winning play pretty much tells you all you need to know about it: there’s a big cross, symbolizing Christianity, which like all religions is based on the concept of faith, making the title somewhat of an oxymoron, and that’s the idea. The film opens with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the priest at a New York Catholic church in the 1960s, giving a sermon on this very topic: is doubt a good thing for a Christian to feel? He, somewhat surprisingly, shares that he feels it can be as unifying a sentiment as the faith that he typically preaches. This, I believe, is 1960s Catholic progressivism.

Not everybody shares Father Flynn’s views, the head nun Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) chief among them. We get what amounts to a bit of old-school vs. new-school jockeying between the two of them, and Shanley puts an exclamation point on this part of his exposition with a perfectly shot (and hilarious) juxtaposition between the lives of the nuns and the priests, exemplified by their contrasting dinner repertoires.

The film’s story centers around—indeed, almost entirely consists of—suspicions of Father Flynn that develop after the not-as-naive-as-she-appears Sister James (Amy Adams) witnesses something that leads her to believe the priest has been molesting a student at the school. When she shares this information with her superior, Sister Aloysius makes it her mission to see to it that the priest is met with justice.

The film ostensibly leaves the question of whether or not any actual abuse on the part of the Father occurred as a mystery, but it clearly takes the side of Sister Aloysius, who nearly immediately concludes that the priest is guilty. It is awkward at times to sit through this, as Flynn’s own attempts to defend himself are not given much support, neither visually nor via dialogue. This, of course, is the point, though: Streep’s character is instantly sure of what has occurred, and she will not allow any semblance of doubt to show through in her ruthless attempts to oust the priest.

To call this a dialogue-heavy movie is to understate the obvious. This is a film that exists to showcase the acting talents of its stars, Streep and Hoffman foremost, but also Adams and Viola Davis, who nearly steals the show with her single scene. It has been said that Davis might even receive a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her 10ish minutes on screen, and I don’t think that would be undeserved, but her role is overshadowed by the screen-commanding performance of Meryl Streep, who thoroughly owns every scene she is in, even the multiple shouting matches with Hoffman (who is surely among the best onscreen shouters of all time).

And while I’m always one to enjoy an exhibition of great acting, this is also the source of my main gripe about this movie: it is little more than an exercise in acting. The story itself is quite limited in scope, giving us little to no surprises along the way, and relying almost exclusively on the heated dialogue exchanges to move things along. Shanley is wise to get out of the way of his stars, limiting the camera movements of the great Roger Deakins while still allowing him to frame the occasional shot in a novel way, just to add some spice to the proceedings. To me, it’s a great accomplishment that this film is not in the least bit boring (although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’ve made it sound like it is). Long uninterrupted scenes of dialogue can be engrossing when in the right hands, though, and here that is certainly the case. There’s not even a musical score during much of the film, another instance of the movie staying out of the way of the actors, to its credit.

Status: In limited release (opened 12/5/08)
Directed By: Ron Howard
Written By: Peter Morgan
Cinematographer: Salvatore Totino
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell

Like Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Ron Howard’s latest film takes public figures from the 1970s that might have been a bit forgotten, and reanimates them in modern terms, while calling overt attention to their present-day relevance. Frost/Nixon deals with the question of whether or not a President should be held accountable for his actions while in office, and what history should have to say about those actions; these are obviously questions that are being asked by our own culture today, and while an examination of Nixon is not guaranteed to answer them in either case, it is certainly an intriguing story to watch play out.

David Frost (Michael Sheen, who is not A Sheen, despite being a Sheen) provided the unlikely public hearing on the offenses of Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in 1977 that the American public had been clamoring for since the former President’s resignation three years earlier. In this adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play, we watch both Sheen and Langella reprise their roles from the stage production, while being treated to Howard’s reserved style of direction that allows these performances to remain the primary focus even while exploiting some of the unique opportunities provided by a big-screen version of this story.

As Van Sant did with Milk, Howard here combines historical footage of the actual people involved with his newly-shot dramatizations, although there is much more of the latter than the former, Howard preferring to use archival video almost exclusively for exposition. We are quickly brought up to speed, and then thrown into the midst of David Frost’s ambitious attempt to secure an exclusive interview with the most embattled—and the most publicly hated—leader in American history. Frost then assembles a team of advisers to help him prepare for the series of four interviews, headed by author James Reston (Sam Rockwell).

The interviews themselves comprise at least half of the movie’s duration, and they are intriguing and engrossing from the start. Similar to Doubt, this is a film that relies on allowing its leading actors to deliver dialogue effectively and to play off of each other emotively, and Howard, like Shanley, is wise to stay out of the way of the performances while making sure to portray them as dramatically as possible. Said performances are about as good as it gets. Sheen captures the balance of David Frost perfectly: renowned playboy and talk show host yet desiring to be taken seriously as an interviewer, he moves between the two personae believably, subtly shifting Frost’s mannerisms along the way.

Frank Langella, though, steals the show. His embodiment of Richard Nixon is remarkable, particularly for the way in which he portrays a man who is more multi-dimensional than the audience might assume. Morgan’s script and Langella’s performance go so far, in fact, as to spin Nixon as a likable person who has faced some tough decisions and allowed the weight of his office to sometimes skew his judgment. It is not only a much more fulfilling character than a more black-and-white version would have been, it is also a much bolder performance, and it is pulled off to perfection. I dare say that Langella, in my book, gives Sean Penn a run for his money, particularly because he is given a more difficult charge—whereas Harvey Milk was a thoroughly likable character, Nixon’s disposition is not so clear… and yet, we find ourselves sympathizing with him just when we least expected it, so humanizing is Langella’s performance.

There are a couple of confusing choices made in this film, foremost among them a story-telling contrivance that I feel is a bit of a cheat at the end of the second act. It’s hard to fault a movie that’s primarily about two people sitting in chairs talking to each other for attempting to spice things up the slightest bit, though. The revelations the interviews bring about are subtle and real, and the drama of their coming is built up so effectively, we can do little other than sit back and enjoy the show.