Reduced to their basic elements, theater and cinema operate on much the same principle as the boxing ring or the gladiatorial arena. What greater visceral pleasure is there than to see two evenly matched antagonists sparring at close quarters? The difference in the theater is that the weapons are words, and it is difficult to think of a playwright who hasn't portrayed such a fight in one play or another. In the movies, of course, the weapons can be—and usually are—more incendiary, as a casual glance of the latest box office figures will tell you. The trick in translating verbal battles to the screen is to keep them from becoming stagey, while simultaneously doing justice to the dialogue. It helps to have a director who thinks in terms of both the camera and the script, not letting either gain the upper hand. But the most important thing is to have actors of great and equal talent. Too many movies of this sort have been damaged by inadequate casting. One of the worst culprits was Alfred Hitchcock, who was so intent on making his villains charismatic that he sometimes neglected (deliberately or otherwise) to do the same with his heroes. Watching Strangers on a Train, who can really root for Farley Granger against Robert Walker? That was Hitchcock's point, but he made it too well. (And there are too many other examples in Hitchcock's work; think of the uneven match between Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman in Stage Fright, or Robert Cummings, a/k/a The Amazing Invisible Hero, in Saboteur.)
While unfortunately I don't have the space to do justice to all three movies, there were three notable pairs squaring off head-to-head in movies at the end of 2008: Michael Sheen's David Frost vs. Frank Langella's Richard Nixon in Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon; Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius vs. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt; and Leonardo DiCaprio's Frank Wheeler vs. Kate Winslet's April Wheeler in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road.
Each of these movies illustrates a different sort of conflict. Frost/Nixon's is the most straightforward: can David Frost get Richard Nixon to admit to political wrongdoing in the course of four televised interviews? We know the answer going into the movie, but Howard, as he proved in Apollo 13, is an expert at building suspense in dramas based on real-life historical incidents. So is Peter Morgan, writing the screenplay from his own stage play, who achieved a similar triumph with his screenplay for The Queen.
Howard and Morgan make the point emphatically that Frost—far from the exalted reputation he has today—was regarded in the 1970s as a fluffy, somewhat vacuous celebrity interviewer; the general reaction to his interviewing Richard Nixon was roughly the same as if Jimmy Fallon were to interview Dick Cheney today. Frost longed to be taken seriously, and Michael Sheen captures that longing perfectly, just as Frank Langella captures the dark hollows and crevasses of Nixon's character. The long telephone monologue in which Nixon enumerates the similarities between himself and Frost is the most famous part of the movie, but—as the story makes plain—the differences are even more crucial.
Langella's total assumption of the character of Nixon, going far beyond any impressionist's tricks into the full tragedy of the man's life, have already been dissected in every review of both the stage and screen versions of Frost/Nixon. Less noted—because it is the less showy part—is how beautifully Michael Sheen captures Frost, down to his working-class-via-Cambridge accent. Handsomer and more impish-looking than the real Frost, Sheen is simultaneously ingratiating, hard-edged and touchingly vulnerable. The moment—already well-disseminated in the trailers—in which Nixon finally spills the beans is Sheen's finest: the look of mingled disbelief and triumph as he whispers, "I'm sorry?"
As compelling as Langella and Sheen are, a more complex battle of wills occurs in Doubt. While the basic pivot of the story is whether Sister Aloysius is correct in her suspicions that Father Flynn is molesting one of the altar boys, the issues in Doubt go far beyond the ongoing scandal of pedophile priests. They touch on controversies even more basic to Catholicism, such as the subservient role of women within the Church and the continuing disputes between traditionalists and "Vatican II" advocates. Whatever your stand or stake in these matters, Shanley, Streep and Hoffman make them scaldingly plain and urgent.
Streep and Hoffman, who top the short list of greatest living screen actors, give us an excellent and bloody battle of words, as equals in thespian craft and art. But Shanley's screenplay reminds us of Orwell's dictum that some are more equal than others. Sister Aloysius is clearly the film's dominant character, and Streep bores through the screen with her all-seeing, all-disapproving eyes. When she growls, "Straighten!" at slouching schoolchildren in church, more than a few audience members also snap to. (Streep's performance brings back unpleasant memories to alumni of Catholic grade schools.) And it isn't just schoolchildren who tremble in Sister Aloysius' wake. Young Sister James (Amy Adams) learns this at her peril when she spits out a piece of gristle at the refectory table, and later when she commits the vile sin of keeping a box of cherry cough drops in her desk. ("Candy—by another name," Sister Aloysius says as she tosses the box in the wastebasket.) Sister Aloysius is watchful against any slack in the service of the Lord, and Father Flynn, as she sees it, is virtually all slack. Whether it's his long manicured fingernails, his assumption of Sister Aloysius' chair when visiting her office, his love of secular Christmas songs or his insistence on three spoonfuls of sugar in his tea, Father Flynn has written all over him an arrogant worldliness Sister Aloysius reflexively despises. This is a man, she decides, who is capable of anything.
For his part, Hoffman makes sure we have our own suspicions about Father Flynn. More than any other actor I can think of, Hoffman is a genius at presenting the ever-so-slight queasiness that can exist behind bonhomie, so that when it comes time for the character to fall apart, we will be shocked, but not surprised. That Streep wins the battle is no surprise; that neither really wins the war is more surprising, but—given the politics within the Church, as well as the very nature of faith and doubt—it was only to be expected.
Revolutionary Road depicts the saddest of all the battles considered in this review, because it is one neither party can win. To know the movie is based on a novel by Richard Yates is to know that in advance. Yates—who published Revolutionary Road, his first novel, in 1961--based his writing career on a single theme: how the combination of fate and self-delusion brings us all to disappointment, or worse, in the end. Yates was the poet of human frailty; in classically pellucid prose influenced by his gods Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he depicted—pitilessly and with breathtaking precision--the mental circumlocutions all of us use to justify ourselves to ourselves. And the price we pay for that self-justification, he told us, is endless isolation and despair. The title of his short-story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, could be the epigraph for his entire body of work, except that Yates believed there are as many kinds of loneliness as there are people.
Yates was particularly sharp in his delineation of marital dysfunction, and in Revolutionary Road he drew a classic portrait of two people who married their illusions, and seven years later find themselves married to each other. Frank Wheeler is stuck in a job he hates, working for the same business machine company his father worked for; April Wheeler feels lonely and unfulfilled as a suburban housewife, alone during the day with two small children. Both feel they're better than their situations, and each is starting to blame the other. The novel and the film begin with a bitter roadside fight—April has just given a bad performance in a worse community-theater production of The Petrified Forest, and Frank's fumbling, half-hearted attempts at consolation enrage her—that is only the precursor of worse to come.
When April, in her desperation, devises a plan for the family to move to Paris, the viewer is just as certain as the Wheelers' neighbors that it will never happen, but for different reasons. Whereas the neighbors feel the idea is impractical, the viewer realizes that no matter where Frank and April go, there Frank and April are. Predictable complications ensue to foil the plan—an unexpected promotion for Frank, an unexpected pregnancy for April. But it is the appearance of John Givings (played in the film, with crazed brilliance, by Michael Shannon), the mentally unstable son of the local realtor, who serves as catalyst to the Wheelers' final catastrophe as, with Ibsenesque ferocity, he rips from them their last shreds of illusion.
The screenplay by Justin Haythe—himself a respected novelist—of necessity can't do justice to the interior lives of Yates' characters, from which the novel derives much of its bleak power. Nevertheless, it is a faithful and well-crafted adaptation, more grounded in observable reality than Alan Ball's screenplay for Mendes' most famous movie, American Beauty. And, in DiCaprio and Winslet, Mendes has the perfect actors to play Frank and April. This is DiCaprio and Winslet's first film together since they became America's Sweethearts in Titanic, and Revolutionary Road serves as a testament of how their talents have grown and deepened in the ensuing twelve years. (I'm still waiting for The Onion to publish Jean Teasdale's squawks of outrage that the stars of her all-time favorite movie should reunite only to make a film that resembles a documentary of her relationship with Hubby Rick.)
DiCaprio has a face that, though handsome and manly, can bear the stamp of a disappointed little boy; his unsettling blue-green eyes can go from innocent to demonic in one blink. His face becomes the mirror of Frank's soul, and its vacillation between smug self-satisfaction and free-fall uncertainty. Winslet, even more regally beautiful now than she was in Titanic, also is capable of girlish vulnerability; her most affecting moments in Revolutionary Road are when, spent and despairing, she stares into the distance.
DiCaprio and Winslet are both extremely convincing at verbal savagery, particularly in the final argument that destroys their future happiness for good. But at other times in Revolutionary Road there are glimpses of their old Titanic chemistry that makes the film's final tragedy all the more unbearable. Both the novel and movie of Revolutionary Road are for strong stomachs only; but, for those who can take their bleak vision, they are indisputable works of art.