Doubt – Truth vs Conscience
The movie Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, has an emotional disconnect at its core– in the most unsuccessful sense of the word. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is a Power of Conscience character at the center of a Power of Truth story. She is the wrong protagonist for the film and this mistake fatally skews and distorts the story’s emotional focus. It makes the ending feel false (or as described by various critics– “a cop out”). Here’s what went wrong and why.
Meryl Streep plays a classic Power of Conscience protagonist. In all the reviews and press information her character is described variously as: stern, rigid, inflexible, intimidating, judgmental, authoritarian, single-minded, strict, moralistic, harsh, punitive and punishing. Early in the film, she glares at children whispering, fidgeting, slumping or snoozing in Mass and admonishes them with a variety of hisses and thumps on the head or raps on the knuckles. She describes herself a number of times in the movie as “certain” or having “absolute certainty.”
Power of Conscience characters see something and immediately “know” if it is right or wrong. If they witness an action or activity they view as improper, immoral or corrupt and they are compelled to act. These characters simply cannot stand by or be silent in the face of perceived injustice or wrong-doing. Inspector Javert, in Les Miserables is another example of a hardened, unforgiving and unrelenting Power of Conscience character in pursuit of a “wrong-doer.” Less dark versions of this Character Type in religious life are Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons and Thomas Becket in Becket. Both men defy a king whose actions they judged as immoral or improper. Both men died as a result.
Suspicion or doubt, by their nature are at the heart of a Power of Truth story. The Story Questions in a Power of Truth film are: Who can I trust? What is really going on here? Did I really see what I thought I saw? Who is my ally and who is my enemy? When does loyalty look like betrayal? When does betrayal look like loyalty? How can I be really certain of anything? What does it all mean?
None of these questions occur to Sister Aloysius. She never doubts her own judgment. She is unwavering in her pursuit of what she “knows” must be the corruption at the heart of Father Flynn’s actions. She is single-minded and sure of herself. She is absolutely determined to root out wrong-doing wherever and however it rears its head in her school.
Sister James (Amy Adams) is the person plagued and tormented by each of these Power of Truth questions. She is torn and doesn’t know what to believe. It is very difficult to suspect someone you genuinely like and admire of a horrible act. Sister James likes and respects the warm charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the parish priest at the center of the controversy. The pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church turned on the difficulty those in authority had in believing that competent, well-respected and well-liked priests could also be bad men with deeply criminal impulses.
If the story is about really is about doubt, then the ages and positions of the nuns should have been reversed. Sister James should have been the older school principal and protagonist. Sister Aloysius should have been a younger gung-ho Power of Conscience nun. If Sister James had been goaded into accusing Father Flynn, despite her uncertainty and doubt, then it would be entirely credible that she would be tormented about whether or not she did the right thing.
A Power of Conscience character cannot be the protagonist of a Power of Truth film without causing an emotional disconnect. That’s why the ending of the film feels so contrived and false. We never quite believe that Sister Aloysius, who is so certain in all things, would inexplicably dissolve into tears of doubt and remorse once she had accomplished her goal– removing a man she believed to be corrupt from her school.
If this is Power of Conscience film then the central issue is not doubt, it is the dangers of executing a God-like judgment of others. If the harsh unyielding Sister Aloyius is the protagonist, then her character should have been proven wrong with horrible results. Her hard, unrelenting, moral certainty should have been her tragic downfall.
Wesley Morris writing in The Boston Globe about the film says: “…The truth is that Sister Aloysius’s steely single-mindedness is actually quite simple, which is why the movie’s (and the play’s) abrupt final scene is a cop-out.”