In Rare Form, Hollywood Debates Morals Without Moralizing

Ten years ago, "Doubt" went against type and delivered a study in subtlety and nuance that left this writer pleasantly guessing.

Fromt he official trailer for “Doubt.” (2008) Courtesy of Miramax/You Tube

While Hollywood today is hardly known for subtlety and nuance, and Meryl Streep in no way keeps her politics to herself, once in a while a film comes along that surprises, even restores faith in an art form that has become a vehicle for cheap liberal tropes and corporate conformity.

One such movie is Doubt, a 10-year-old standout featuring Streep alongside a stand-out cast of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Contrary to some reviews that praise the acting but complain about the slow plot development, Doubt is an utterly gripping film, underscoring in a relentless, steady fashion a nest of nagging moral questions. Taking place at St. Nicholas, a Bronx Catholic high school in 1964, this involves the troubled relationship between the principal, Sister Aloysius, a stern nun played by Meryl Streep, and a jovial parish priest named Father Brendan Flynn, played by Hoffman, who died at the age of 46 in 2014. 

The two antagonists spar at several levels, beginning with their attitudes toward students and parishioners, but things really go south when Sister Aloysius suspects that Father Flynn is a pedophile. She first reveals her suspicions to a young nun Sister James, played by Amy Adams, then takes up the matter with Mrs. Miller, played by Viola Davis, who is the mother of the first black student at St. Nicholas. It is Mrs. Miller’s 12-year-old son Donald whom Sister Aloysius thinks has been the target of Father Flynn’s “inappropriate” advances.

When Donald is dismissed as an altar boy (it’s discovered that he’s dipped into the sacramental wine), the sister concludes that her superior Father Flynn plied him with the intoxicant in the course of trying to seduce him. Flynn also exhibits what Sister Aloysius regards as “improper” conduct in dealing with other pre-adolescent boys, but it’s his interest in Donald that troubles her most. In one scene after the boy’s books are mischievously shaken loose by his schoolmates as he’s walking in the hall, Father Flynn runs to embrace him. This might have been nothing more than a display of pastoral concern; nonetheless, it could also have been, at least in the sister’s mind, something far more sinister.

Without a doubt, Sister Aloysius, a war widow who eventually became a nun, is wired tightly and rules the students at the parish school with a firm grip. But her bark is worse than her bite, and as she explains to Sister James, every school with young boys needs someone like her to maintain order. Although she daringly confronts Father Flynn with her charges, there is no reason to assume she’s acting maliciously. She feels that all signs point in one direction. When she brings up certain “incidents” with Donald’s mother, she learns to her astonishment that Mrs. Miller is sure that her son is a homosexual. That’s why her husband and other boys abused him. Moreover, Mrs. Miller is not at all troubled that her son is being fondled by a priest, if that is indeed what is happening. Perhaps, she speculates, the priest can help Donald, who, like her husband, she thinks is a very strange boy. These remarks leave Sister Aloysius even more convinced that her clerical superior is a pedophile.

After a climactic flare-up, Father Flynn is sent to a larger, more affluent parish by the bishop, who it turns out is a close friend. We have no idea what the priest told his superior in order to receive this promotion. In the closing scene, Meryl Streep confesses sobbingly that she is experiencing “doubts.” For some reviewers this tearful confession settles the matter—Sister Aloysius has recklessly defamed a hail-fellow-well-met priest. The viewer may also remember that at the beginning of the film, Father Flynn had given a sermon about the value of doubt in our spiritual journeys. It would appear that his adversary had just come to appreciate that insight.

But this was not how I interpreted the film when I first viewed it. I just wasn’t sure which antagonist was right. And that was still my reaction as I watched the movie again a few weeks ago. Certain actions would suggest that Father Flynn engaged in “improper conduct” even if these actions weren’t quite enough to seal the case against him. The boy to whom he was drawn (perhaps beyond his stated wish to make the first black student at his school feel comfortable) may have been an easy target. We learn that Sister James saw the priest putting Donald’s shirt in his locker after having given him a gift. Flynn never parries effectively the charges leveled by Sister Aloysius, as opposed to trying to avoid dealing with them while exhibiting annoyance that one would even bring them up, and clearly. Simply put, Sister Aloysius suspicions are at least minimally grounded.

Congratulations are in order for the screenwriter, John Patrick Shanley, who adapted Doubt from his own play. He spared the viewer any PC posturing in a script that could have easily led to this annoyance. Shanley’s film neither goes after pedophile priests nor rants against sexually repressed, sadistic nuns. Although the black student is abused by his classmates, this is not presented as a manifestation of white racism. Everyone reacts to what they consider Donald’s odd, effeminate demeanor, but the filmmakers do not turn this into a brief against the suppressed rights of the LGBT community. Shanley resists the impulse to make a fashionable social statement, even though he deals with topics that might have pushed him in that direction.

Instead he does something that is very different. He underlines the moral ambiguity that is inherent in serious drama. He depicts his antagonists locked in a situation in which guilt and innocence are never unambiguously disclosed. And in accordance with Shanley’s intention, we are left with doubts even when the film ends.

This of course may not be what passes for “smart” drama today. As an example, HBO awarded Doubt no more than three out of four stars.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.

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6 Responses to In Rare Form, Hollywood Debates Morals Without Moralizing

  1. Liam says:

    Moral ambiguity is more typically relegated to long-form cable television, for example, Mad Men, which allows a greater arc of character development with plot movement.

  2. Tyro says:

    I will probably lose my “liberal intellectual” cred here, but I am not into “ambiguous” movies than explore the moral dilemmas and conflicting motivations of different characters (“A Separation” was like this as well). With only 2 hours, you can barely establish a few characters and put together a plot. Spending that limited time putting together a “nuanced portrayal” that “asks more questions than it answers” leaves me feeling empty.

  3. EliteCommInc, says:

    I think its very appropriate to that you chose Mrs Gummer. Having had her complaint fest about immigrants roundly rejected and some healthy doses of reality — the powerful of today turn to attacking character. They manufacture doubt because its the best card to play. They don’t have any real evidence, but they can certainly kick up a dust storm.

    The film doubt makes it case that fomenting doubt is itself and evil. But it does what the self inclined righteous do — keave the negative consequences, the destruction in the waves of good intentions. It trails against gossip, but holds no one accountable. It’s that worst of moralists always jumping fences and pretend neutrality. Not because they are genuinely neutral — or objective or even fair. But that role allows them no accountability for the wrongs they have done.

    What makes this crows especially dangerous is when they are at fault and when they don’t get there way. A movie about accountability that holds no one accountable. Being on the right side of the power wave is far more important than truth or integrity. The power wave says that stoking doubt and about others is valuable as and indictment. Because doubt needs no resolution to do its work.

    It’s the kind of argument this author makes, the film was not about color dynamics, it was about the state of the Church’s position against homosexuality in light of the over scandalized abuse cases. It’s about the witch hunt without actually indicting the witch hunt. It’s about revenge over substance. It’s about being found out for mere witch hunting cloaked in garbs of righteousness.

    There’s a war a foot, but it is not overseas. It’s the war of rhetorical fear mongering and broad brush strokes in an ever increasing whirlwind of accusation. Don’t agree with me –, demonstrate that my logic is utterly bankrupt, instead of rethinking, I will doubt you out of existence. Poisoning the well is the perfect weapon, because nothing need be concrete, The seed of poison once watered will grow all by itself. It will choke the sense out of reason, and the prudence from considered thought and yet it will appear as benign as sheep —

    The most powerful moment in that play is or the film is not the film, but the tale told within the film of how well poisoning works.

    We have seen this tactic wide open an unashamed by people claiming some moral superiority by name calling and calling into question the morals of any believer who voted fro Pres Trump. There’s no evidence that believers who supported the President were whoremongers or advocates for same sex conduct, or violating other’s sovereign space . . . or lieing, or even supportive of gaming — but the powerful made their case loud and clear without any substantiation.

    But two issues have become clear that the well poisoners are agreed about three things: whites have been sorely abused and its the fault of 14^ of the population, war for regime change is good as long as the right people back it and Pres Trump is good now that he endorses everything that he ran against — well not good so much as useful.

    In the old days when people of faith actually behaved as people of faith and I could stand to hang in a church for five minutes, the church spent most of its time reflecting on self which is the hardest battle of faith. To align the my soul to the will of Christ is very tough work, cross bearing work. I won’t overcome my bitterness anytime soon. But nor will I allow it to engage in beating up on others because I am losing an argument on the merits or the tantrums of machinations gossiping and the politics of personal destruction so aptly named by by those who seem more skilled at it than most and now adopted as main stream reason.

    One of the most fascinating aspects of this presidency is that so much has been raised to the surface in all of it’s bare essentials. Stripped naked, it has been an eye opener.

    ________________________

    “Shanley’s film neither goes after pedophile priests nor rants against sexually repressed, sadistic nuns. Although the black student is abused by his classmates, this is not presented as a manifestation of white racism.”

    Because the press is her the cruelty against expressed aberrant sexual desires. In modern times, since the 1970’s whites of any brand have been more amenable to wrestling with relational imbalances than the blatant realities of color. Secret, that’s why there are so many same sex practitioners in places of power — but let’s pretend it’s all one big cup of tea from the same pot. The only tea bags that have had more impact is the same contend about the plight of women.

    I have no intention of cowing to the manipulations of argument on issues. That makes me a fool — but it keeps my conscience clear. It may keep me poor and penniless — but it keeps my conscience clear.

    “Simply put, Sister Aloysius suspicions are at least minimally grounded.”

    And the cake topper . . . suspicion grounded on suspicion is always grounded and for which there can never be an answer.

    It’s like the terrorism

    “But what if . . .” legs all it own.

  4. Brian Chance says:

    I don’t think there is any doubt about the priest’s guilt. The ultimate doubt here is the moral doubt which Sister Aloysius had about the means which she used to entrap the priest. While her deception has the Supreme Court’s constitutional imprimatur in police investigations, such consequentialism is a grave sin in the Catholic Church – the ends do not justify the means. And in the end what did her lie get her? Father Flynn moves onto the a richer parish and school full of nubile young men to feed his ephebophilia, unrestrained by a tenacious sister who he knows knows his dirty secret.

  5. grin without a cat says:

    I really liked the movie a lot.

    My mom was telling me how they showed the movie, followed by a discussion, at her retirement community. She was about 90 years old at the time. The presenter asked the folks if they thought that the priest was guilty of sexually molesting the boy, and pretty much everybody said that, no they didn’t think so.

    Then he told them that when the same question was asked of younger adults, they mostly thought that, yes, he did. Middle-aged folks (my cohort) were split on the question.

    My mom asked me what I thought, and I said that I thought he probably did it.

  6. MrsDK says:

    I was enthralled by the traditional Catholic ambience of the film — an ambience now long gone.

    I walked out of the film not at all sure that the priest did it. My husband announced calmly that he definitely did it and pointed out the scenes which made him sure of that. I had completely missed it.

    My agnostic husband also said that he got tears in his eyes when the nun says, “I have doubts” at the end. He was sure that she meant doubts about her faith. It’s a great film. It repays rewatching.

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