When in Doubt…

“What Do You Do When You’re Not Sure?”

Doubt. John Patrick Shanley, writer/director. Miramax Films, 104 minutes.

reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen

Innocent until proven guilty. This is the principle upon which our legal system is based, and it has served us well for over 200 years. Yes, it means that occasionally a guilty person goes free for lack of sufficient evidence, but we would rather see ten guilty men go free than one innocent man incarcerated. That has been our creed, and it is one of the founding principles that makes our nation great.

But what if the suspected crime is so heinous that further incidents must be prevented at all costs? What happens when we simply can’t afford the risk of letting a suspect remain free? This is a question we have had to face since the beginning of the war on terror, when we started sending suspected terrorists to holding cells in Guantanamo. It is echoed forcefully in the opening line of John Patrick Shanley’s timely and thought-provoking film, Doubt: “What do you do when you’re not sure?”

The film is set in a Catholic school in 1964, one year after the assassination of President Kennedy and two years after the Bay of Pigs invasion, a time that not-so-coincidentally mirrors our current heightened state of alert. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the principal of  the school, is a strict, no-nonsense nun who keeps an eye on everyone, students and teachers alike, to make sure no one crosses the line. She imposes the same strict standard of obedience upon herself. When she suspects that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the gregarious new priest, may be making improper advances toward an altar boy, she watches them both closely, enlisting the aid of a young teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams), as her classroom eyes, and occasionally crossing the line to become “the cat that catches the mouse.” As Father Flynn warns in that same sermon, “In the pursuit of wrongdoing one steps away from God.”

The film is more than a crime investigation, however; it is a film about authority and culture, about teaching and discipline, about certainty and doubt. “You have no proof!” Father Flynn reminds Sister Aloysius forcefully during a confrontation. “But I have my certainty!” she responds even more forcefully. Is the certainty of public opinion a strong enough reason for conviction? Judging by the many trials-by-journalism we see in the news today, “certainty” seems to trump proof with chilling regularity. Recently a friend said to me in all earnestness, “I’d like to move to Florida just so I could get on the Caylee Anthony jury and convict that awful woman.” So much for a fair trial. Certainty is all that matters.

Through juxtaposition Shanley reveals the difference between the life of a nun and the life of a priest: the women sit somberly around an austere kitchen table, silently shoveling food into their mouths, nervously aware of Sister Aloysius’s watchful glare.  Meanwhile, the priests dine in a well-lit, nicely appointed room, laughing jovially at Father Flynn’s stories and smoking cigars. The message is clear: the life of a nun is much harder than the life of a priest.

As a woman, devoid of authority, Sister Aloysius must work in the shadows to bring her suspicions to light.  Shanley uses awkward camera angles to demonstrate the awkward imbalance of authority, and he uses darkness and light as powerful metaphors in the film. Sister Aloysius’s light bulb keeps going out in her office; a gale-force wind screams around the school as she conducts her investigation; the women’s dark bonnets completely shield their faces and create the appearance of witch-like old crones.

The three main characters represent three different approaches to teaching: Sister Aloysius is the strict disciplinarian who believes that instilling strong moral character in her students is the most important duty of a teacher; Sister James is the nurturing, enthusiastic, idealistic new teacher who sweetens her lessons with bright smiles; and Father Flynn represents the guidance counselor who believes that developing a student’s well-being and social skills is more important than multiplication tables and grammar. They have the same goal, but decidedly conflicting personalities.

All three provide masterful performances, but Streep stands out as the strict, unyielding principal of the school. Sharp-nosed, firm-lipped, black-garbed, she glides down the aisle during Father Flynn’s opening sermon, her hand darting out to slap an inattentive boy on the back of the head. She bends to the posture of a sleeping boy resting his head on the bench in front of him, draws her face to within an inch of his, and shouts imperiously in his ear, “Straighten!” He jumps to attention. But she brings softness to her character as well. During dinner, she gently pushes a fork into the reach of a nun who is trying to hide her blindness. And watch for the way she cradles her crumpled shawl to her chest during her confrontation with Father Flynn. She wraps both arms around the bundle of wool and leans her cheek against its softness as he defends his actions toward the boy as mere friendship. Without a word, she asserts her higher authority as a woman with maternal instincts.

Did he do it? As writer and director, Shanley knows the answer, but he told it privately only to Hoffman, in order to maintain that inner struggle in the actresses playing Sister James, Sister Aloysius and the boy’s mother, Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis). Clues abound on both sides. “You have the right to ask a girl to dance,” Father Flynn tells a young boy preparing for a social evening at the school, “but she has the right to turn you down.” Does this imply that he believes he has the right to make advances, as long as he backs off and takes “No” for an answer? On the other hand, the boy is an outsider in need of a friend, and the gregarious Father Flynn might simply be offering an arm of fellowship to a lonely student. We never know for sure, but we might know for certain.

Streep’s performance is so strong that it almost creates a flaw in the film. The story is intended to remain ambiguous to the end, the audience unsure and thus uncomfortable with either outcome. In the stage play Cherry Jones (who won a Tony for her role) created a more sympathetic principal, strict but caring.  Streep’s Sister Aloysius is so unlikable, her sharp nose so firmly in everyone else’s business, that we instinctively side against her with the more inviting Father Flynn. Like the sweet Sister James, we want him to be innocent. And yet, there is something in his eyes… Perhaps this was Shanley’s intent: to demonstrate that molesters often get away with their crime because they are so likable.

More importantly, will he do it again? This threat of continued wrongdoing, the film suggests, is the potential weakness of our judicial presumption of innocence. But should we take this priest off the streets and away from the altar boys while we are investigating, at the cost of losing a fine teacher if he is innocent? Metaphorically, should we remove potential terrorists from our communities while we are deciding what to do with them, at the cost of turning innocent immigrants into lifelong enemies? The film is particularly timely as President Obama prepares to close down the holding cells at Guantanamo.

Perhaps we have more to fear than fear itself after all.

Three Cups of Tea

“Three Cups of Tea.” Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.Penguin Books, 2006. 331 pages.

Greg Mortenson was just hours away from reaching the summit of K2, the second highest peak in the world, when a fellow climber encountered severe altitude sickness and had to be carried down the mountain. With a long yearning glance backward, Mortenson volunteered to help carry the man to safety, giving up his own dream of mastering the mountain. That’s the kind of man Mortenson is; a nurse by training, he will stop at nothing to help someone in need.

Exhausted after the grueling rescue, Mortenson rested at base camp and then lagged behind his group as they headed down the mountain, ending up lost and disoriented. By luck he stumbled into the small village of Korphe, where he was welcomed, warmed, fed, and befriended. Spending several weeks with the villagers as he recuperated, he came to respect and appreciate his Pakistani hosts. When he saw that their children gathered in circles with sticks to draw multiplication tables in the mud, he vowed to return and build them a school.

Many mountaineers vow to return and “do something” about the poverty in the villages where their sherpas live; to the surprise of the Korpheans, Mortenson actually did. The Korphe villagers told him, “Here we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family. And for our family we are prepared to do anything–even die.”

Mortenson has drunk those three cups of tea with the Pakistanis. In the past 15 years he has risked his life to help them build over a hundred schools in remote villages, raising the funds and doing much of the work himself. It is a remarkable achievement.

What makes his school-building campaign even more remarkable is that Mortenson was in Pakistan while al Qaeda terrorists were preparing their attacks on New York and Washington. He describes the disgruntled Islamic fundamentalists who were slipping across the border from Pakistan to training camps in Afghanistan where they formed the Taliban. He was there in September, 2001, when the planes hit the Towers and the Pentagon.

In the days after the attacks, he sat near the journalists holed up in the safety of the Marriott Hotel, far away from the actual conflict, writing their stories based on hearsay and rumors that filtered up from the outlying villages. Meanwhile, he met personally with leaders of the various groups, speaking their language and respecting their culture as he deftly convinced them not to shut down his schools.  He offers a unique, first-hand report of the complex situation.

One of the reasons for Mortenson’s success is that he stays focused on education. Twice he has been the subject of a “fatwa,” condemned by zealous tribal leaders who believe he has an ulterior motive to teach Christianity in his schools.  Each time he has been vindicated by Islamic leaders who recognize his sincerity in simply wanting Pakistani children, both boys and girls, to be educated. “Dr. Greg,” as they call him, has become a quiet hero throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Three Cups of Tea” is, in the words of Tom Brokaw, “thrilling…proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world.” The book details the problems of sending humanitarian aid to developing countries, where graft, corruption, and mafia-like protection rackets prevent the money from arriving at its intended purpose. Mortenson often met teachers in the government schools who had not been paid their meager $40 a month in a year or more. Mortenson would pay them out of his own funds. When village women came to Mortenson asking for vocational training so they could earn a living, Mortenson added technical wings to his primary schools, similar to the micro loans popularized by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus of the Grameen Bank. He also set up training sessions for the sherpas.

Juxtaposed against the military campaign in Iraq, Greg Mortenson has been making friends and building schools in Pakistan, and now in Afghanistan, during the entire “war on terror.” I think he has found a better way to solve the problem. As one of his contacts, Brigadier General Bashir Baz, told him, “You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fighting will go on forever.”

Building relationships is precisely what Greg Mortenson has been doing for the past 15 years, one village and one school at a time. He has overcome tribal barriers and aggression by appealing to the universal desire of all people: to provide a better life for our children. He is living proof that Muslims and “infidels” can be friends when they work together for a common cause, drinking “three cups of tea” to seal the bond.

The Reader

“The Reader.” Stephen Daldry, director. Weinsteins, producers. 123 minutes. Rated R for nudity.

I don’t get the fascination with the bland Ralph Fiennes (“The English Patient,” “The Constant Gardener,” “The Reader”). One of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes is the one where Elaine tries desperately to avoid seeing “The English Patient,” that ponderously long and tedious paean to love and war. I was equally disgruntled by the Academy’s choice of “Titanic” for Best Picture, with its made-up love story between Leo diCaprio and Kate Winslet in lieu of a real story based on the real passengers. Maybe it was that steamy bathtub scene with Kristin Scott Thomas that floated the Academy’s boats in “The English Patient.” Come to think of it, there was that long arty scene of Leo sketching Kate’s breasts in “Titanic”…. Maybe that’s the connection! If the Academy loves watery nude scenes, “The Reader” fits right in.

“The Reader” could just as easily have been titled, “The Bather,” since the first third of the film takes place in a bathtub. Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) is a middle-aged tram conductor with a penchant for cleanliness and a secret to hide. When 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) becomes ill on her tram and then vomits in the street near her flat, she attacks the mess vigorously with buckets of water and then kindly escorts the boy home. Later, when young Michael comes to her flat to thank her for her help, she asks him to bring up a bucket of coal and then orders him to strip down and bathe to get rid of the coal dust. Cowed by her orders, Michael nervously obeys, becoming even more nervous when a naked Hanna begins toweling him off.

But the nervousness doesn’t last long. Hanna does a lot of scrubbing and toweling as the two spend a “summer of ’42” in the bathtub, Hannah teaching “Kid” the kama sutra while the kid reads to her from dozens of books–“The Odyssey,” “Huck Finn,” Chekov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog,” even “Tin Tin” comics and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Then suddenly one day Hanna disappears. Simply packs up her apartment and leaves. No strings, no attachments, no pregnancy. Cozy, romantic, and sexy, right?  Every young boy’s dream come true.

But wait a minute. He’s 15. And she’s 38.

And he never gets over it.

The adult Berg (Ralph Fiennes) is unable to sustain a relationship. Divorced, he is estranged from his daughter, scarcely visits his family, has sex with women but doesn’t sleep with them. In short, he has been traumatized by a sexual predator who is nevertheless portrayed as a victim. Am I the only reviewer who has noticed this fact?

We are supposed to feel sorry for Hanna because, poor thing, she is illiterate. And because she cannot read, her job choices are limited. Michael learns just how limited when, several years after his summer with Hanna, he attends the trial of Nazi war criminals as a law student. To his amazement, Hanna is one of the defendants, a former SS guard accused of sending dozens of women to their deaths in the concentration camps and, more brutally, of not allowing 300 women out of a burning building. “It was our job to guard them,” she explains to the judge, adding, when he seems unmoved by that defense, “Well? What would you have done?”

This is perhaps the most important line of the film, the one worth pondering. What would you or I do, if faced with a similar dilemma? What moral crimes might we commit at work or at war, simply because it is our job? Would we have drunk the kool-aid? How many of Madoff’s employees suspected what was going on, but signed off on audits and reports because the benefits were good? Is it more heroic to obey “my country, right or wrong,” or to act and think for ourselves?  As jobs become more scarce in our shrinking economy, standing on moral ground may become more difficult–and more lonely.

But Hanna’s question is quickly lost as Berg discovers her seemingly more shameful secret: Hanna cannot read, and therefore could not have written the extermination report. If Berg reveals this fact to the judge, Hanna will not be given the more severe punishment as the ringleader of the guards. But Berg cannot bring himself to betray this shameful secret. Being an SS guard is one thing. But illiteracy? It’s not her fault she decided to become an SS guard; it was the only job she could get. He decides to keep her secret.

I don’t mean to downplay the hardship of illiteracy. As a teacher, I work with semi-literate students regularly. But to suggest that illiteracy is a more shameful secret than sending innocent women to their deaths? More shameful than sexually preying on a 15-year-old boy? I don’t buy it.

And I don’t buy this film as a Best Picture nominee. At times I felt as though I had walked into one of those peep shows on 8th Avenue rather than a highly acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film. The Weinsteins must have known there was something wrong with all the nudity (so flagrant that the imdb website discusses his circumcision as a “goof”). After all, they waited until David Kross turned 18 to film those scenes, to avoid any statutory rape or child porn charges. Yes, Winslet’s performance is haunting as Hanna; she does amazing things with the snap of her dark, sorrowing eyes. Kross is brilliant as the young, besotted,  confused Michael. But a film must be carried by the story, not by the actors alone.

Juxtaposed against their bathtub lovemaking are scenes of what Michael’s life could have been–carefree scenes of his friends swimming at the local lake as he runs off to spend the afternoon in Hanna’s bathtub. Hanna is a lifelong victimizer, not a victim. Illiteracy is no excuse for murder.

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