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Critic's Notebook: 'Frost/Nixon' and 'Doubt' show the perils of adaptation

December 27, 2008 |  2:00 pm

Frost/Nixon
Oscar season has arrived and with it a couple of prestige projects straight from The Theatah. “Hollywood Burgles Broadway for Bric-A-Brac” reads the likely Variety headline. The only problem is that those coveted statuettes aren’t exactly in the bag.

“Frost/Nixon,” adapted by author Peter Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, and “Doubt,” adapted and directed by author John Patrick Shanley, haven’t been radically altered, but changes in thematic emphasis, acting style and dramatic pacing might upset viewers silly enough to want to relive their theatrical experiences at the multiplex. The films will also have to contend with the particular snobbery of moviegoers all set to encounter modern drama at its finest.

That’s a tall order and not one with a glittering record of success. (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was eons ago, folks.) How do you get a golden goose to lay gilded eggs? Faithful reinvention is the strategy adopted by Howard, whose film is the better of the two largely because he’s the cannier movie craftsman.

Approaching storytelling as a swiftly unfolding visual phenomenon, Howard let a succession of staccato scenes speak without unnecessary interpretive underlining. Sure, his habit of holding emotionally climactic moments too long can tilt the drama in an over-conventional direction, but there’s no denying the propulsive energy that brings us to these somewhat overcooked crisis points.

This tale of TV talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen), who wagers more than he can afford to snag the interview “get” of his era with the disgraced ex-President  Nixon (Frank Langella), follows Morgan’s customary screenwriting scheme of pairing two historical characters of opposing temperaments whose confrontation proves to be destiny-changing in some zeitgeisty way. In “The Queen” it was Elizabeth II and Tony Blair in a standoff about the modern-day imperative of touchy-feely political performance, and in “The Deal,” it was Blair and Gordon Brown in a parliamentary lesson about the thin line between alliance and betrayal.

Here, it’s a “born to be on the tube” party boy, eager to regain lost stature, and a notoriously untelegenic Machiavelli, determined to return to the lucrative spotlight without disclosing any Watergate secrets — a battle royal, in other words, for control over that all-important moneymaking vehicle known as public image.

Cherry Jones Onstage, “Frost/Nixon” was as much a critical examination of media mastery and manipulation as it was the story of two dueling comeback kids. The personal saga ran alongside the larger societal one, deepening the humanity of the broader inquiry, though not at the expense of its more far-ranging significance. The impressionistic set of Frost’s studio, with its flashing bank of TV monitors, never allowed us to lose sight of the play’s contention that it’s “tough to tell where the politics stopped and the showbiz started.”

The first half of the movie has a vivid sweep that’s more enthralling than the play’s bouncing abstraction. Howard keeps our senses tantalized by jetting us from London to Los Angeles to Nixon’s oceanfront villa in San Clemente. We’re in transit with Frost to see if he’ll be able to come up with the necessary financing and professional gravitas to make this the television event that will catapult him back into the journalistic big leagues. In the process, we get to spend some time with his new love interest, Caroline Cushing (a marvelous Rebecca Hall), whose fetching presence has become more seductively substantial than in the theater.

The play, which began at London’s Donmar Warehouse, includes direct-address narration by James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), the journalist eager to be part of the team that will elicit Nixon’s apology to the nation, and Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Nixon’s former chief of staff, who offers an alternative ideological viewpoint. This stubbornly theatrical structure is cleverly converted by Morgan into a faux documentary with talking heads delivering their sides of the story. But even with this framework in place, the focus is unswervingly on the two leads.

Langella, who won a Tony for his performance, etches a commandingly sensitive portrayal that’s rooted more in psychological truth than flamboyant impersonation. The only drawback to his virtuosic turn is that it has overshadowed the finesse and intricacy of Sheen’s Frost, which has undeniably ripened over time. In fact, Frost now seems almost as complicated as Nixon. He’s less nefarious, of course. But he’s riddled with his own curious contradictions, a bantamweight celebrity who packs a sharp left hook when underestimated.

Interestingly, the scenes that are less effective in the movie are those that seemed better suited to film: the series of televised debates between the two protagonists. In the theater, these clashes were presented as though they were sporting contests, a redemption competition played out by two self-dramatizers. One’s eyes moved from the live actors to the TV monitors capturing their beady chess-maneuvering eyes, and the result was a demonstration of how the camera both documents and falsifies reality.

Howard’s problem is that he employs the close-up too liberally, taking us deeper inside the combatants’ mental states than into the medium’s myth-making mechanics. A deeper intimacy with these larger-than-life figures is invited, but there’s a duller sense of what Morgan found so meaningful in their ratings-rich series of bouts. The interpersonal connection trumps everything, but since neither of these men provokes a profound sympathetic identification, Howard is forced to linger sentimentally on Nixon’s inconsolable loneliness and his longing for the fast lifestyle he pruriently imagines Frost is leading.

The pivotal scene that shifts the balance of power between a stymieing Nixon and increasingly flummoxed Frost — notable for being invented out of whole cloth — involves a late-night phone call in which the ex-president, dialing while drunk, reaches out to his friendly foe in a moment of curtain-parting vulnerability. Howard belabors this unexpected reversal, lending more heft than the dramatic moment can comfortably bear.

“The Queen” is ultimately a more moving work of historical fiction, partly because of the prim radiance of Helen Mirren and partly because of the tragic back story of Princess Diana’s death. (Watergate may be a reason to despair, but it’s no tear-jerker.) “Frost/Nixon” is smart, stylish and slick. If it doesn’t earn its cathartic finish, it does more than enough to deserve enthusiastic applause.

Meryl Streep The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for “Doubt,” which despite its enviable cast (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis) is up against Shanley’s novice skills as a filmmaker. The movie version, in truth, often seems as though it has been made by an English teacher who wants to introduce students to such literary concepts as foreshadowing, ambiguity and pathetic fallacy. Consider this the Cliffs Notes edition, with every grand theme conveniently italicized for the upcoming quiz.

In fairness, the play, subtitled “A Parable,” doesn’t easily lend itself to cinematic treatment. The temptation to transform  “Doubt” into a movie was no doubt fanned by its runaway success onstage (a Tony, a Pulitzer and nearly every other accolade was thrown its way). But Shanley’s handling of this morality tale about a martinet nun who suspects a priest of wrongdoing with a pupil at her school sets up obstacles.

This four-character chamber drama — talky, idea-oriented and crisply theatrical — can’t be expansively illustrated without recoding its DNA. For one thing, allowing us to meet the kids, including Father Flynn’s possible victim, Donald (Joseph Foster II), the lone African American student at St. Nicholas, takes us from the realm of philosophical meditation to one of evidentiary fact-finding, where every expression is scrutinized for incriminating information.

The film opens with Father Flynn (an all-too-somber Hoffman) delivering a sermon on the subject of doubt to his unseen parishioners. In the theater, the congregation is the audience itself, but in the movie the working-class churchgoers are seated in pews before our eyes. It’s a kick to see such distinctive outer-borough faces and fashions (the story is set in the Bronx in 1964), but as a consequence we become external observers of the homily rather than implicated subjects.

The realism of the film simultaneously blows up the drama and makes it seem smaller. Behaviorally, the actors, including Adams as a young nun caught between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, are plausible enough. But lacking a direct link with the audience, the performances can feel locked in a monotonous key.

Streep is widely considered the Greatest Living American Film Actress, but Cherry Jones, who originated the role of Sister Aloysius, St. Nicholas’ avenging principal, has a claim to being one of the greatest living American stage actresses. Streep is always charismatic, and nothing would give me more pleasure than to pile on the superlatives. But Jones not only found more subtle shading in her portrait but also wrung maximum humor out of the dogmatic maxims her character coins on such subjects as the pagan perils of Frosty the Snowman and the propensity of nuns to fall down. Hoffman has the withdrawn shiftiness of someone burdened with shameful secrets. This is ironic when you consider that Father Flynn is supposed to bring a breath of fresh Vatican II air into this stultifying parochial school. Yet when Hoffman plays basketball with the boys, the kids look as though they’ve been called to detention.

Davis turns in a striking performance as Donald’s overwhelmed mother. But the tributaries of tears streaming down her face in the scene in which Streep threatens to expel her son are as distracting as the symbolism Shanley employs throughout his ponderous catechism.

“Doubt” might have worked better if, in the manner of “Frost/Nixon,” it had enlisted an outside directorial eye. But Shanley’s play is so customized for the stage that even this proposition is dubious. The test of a truly original play may lie in its resistance to becoming easy fodder for films.

-- Charles McNulty

Top photo: Frank Langella, left, and Michael Sheen in their “Frost/Nixon” stage roles. Credit: Ari Mintz / Newsday. Middle photo: Cherry Jones brought subtle shading as “Doubt’s” Sister Aloysius onstage. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Always charismatic Meryl Streep is the film version of "Doubt’s" avenging principal. Credit: Andrew Schwartz / Miramax Films

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