Wednesday, December 31, 2008


“Doubt” portrays the moral and emotional struggle arising between a priest suspected of pederasty and the nun who suspects him. A younger nun embodies the good conscience and competing moral impulses of the audience, for which the antagonists compete.

What I’m about to say blows the plot line, so those who do not want to skip the first-level tensions of initial encounter -- ought probably read no further.

The promotional clips imply a convent western; St. Francis vs. Bloody Mary, Big Nurse down on the lovable loonies. This, together with Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in costume and harness is how you build some kind of a gate.

But I expect that the movie will not do much business. It is not made for our C+ culture and D+ national mentality. It is an anti-western. It is a difficult, spiky lesson in moral philosophy.

Formally, the plot moves in grim parody of Tomesian logic: thesis (He did it), antithesis (No, I didn’t) synthesis (In that case …) But in this case, the young nun arrives at no satisfactory, reconcilliatory judgments. She tacks with the wind. As do we. That’s because the arguments acquire and lose force continuously. They tend, but never conclude.

More than religious professionals are at war here. Sentiment defies logic. Intuition thwarts evidence. Sympathy confounds obligation. Integrity repels kindness. Right and wrong switch habits.

Sermon over, we’re navigating personality traits, hierarchical privilege, child psychology, racial tragedy, domestic abuse, institutional corruption, authoritarian pathology, male prerogative, dismayingly rare roast beef – a red and yellow basket of more-and-less poisoned apples and oranges. No picnic.

The fun of the movie is being drawn in through ingenious craft and emotional power, being tempted to indulge this or that emotion or bias, then getting smacked up side your conscience with the consequence of your self-indulgence. Do you want to do the right thing or enjoy your popcorn? Turns out you can’t do both for more than a couple of minutes. That’s why I don’t think Americans will find much here to recommend.

I have worked the same basic formula in writing case study exercises for clients including the Army National Guard (before it became a combat force), an aluminum can manufacturer in Chicago, and a couple of others.

In one case, a supervisor is required to report a plainly bogus sexual harassment claim to HR – with predictably bad outcomes for all concerned. In another, a Guard recruiter is driven by honorable motives to use unapproved methods.

Of all the corporate goop I have written over twenty-odd years, nothing has come remotely close to these ethical-dilemma activities for exciting participant interest – not to mention impassioned, often angry debate. Frame a job-related conflict between immediate decency and longer term imperatives and you’ll create involvement second only to sex – in my professional experience.

But Doubt is not likely to stimulate this kind of debate. That’s because it layers the impulses so subtly, divides and arranges the moral and sympathetic qualities so evenly – that wherever you start out, you will find at least part of yourself lined up against you. I guarantee it. The aftermath will best be experienced internally, or in slower conversation. Or, as in my case, through an unpleasant dream.

The movie opens with Hoffman delivering an admirable sermon as Steep stalks the pews like a predatory stork, eyes alert for inattentive young heads to back-smack. After a few seconds, I told Joan that I feared we were in for a twisty ride because it couldn’t possibly be that simple and where the thing would lead I could not imagine.

I was, for a change, entirely right.

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