Frost/Nixon is a fact-based drama, starring Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, about a mid-1970s confrontation between a wily British TV host and a disgraced American president. Doubt is a fictional drama, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, about a mid-1960s confrontation between an imperious Bronx nun in charge of a parochial school and a liberal priest she is convinced has behaved improperly with a student. The two might seem to have nothing in common, save that both previously enjoyed award-laden Broadway runs, and both are currently receiving Prestige Movie treatment.
But the pair, taken together, constitute a rewarding study in the opportunities and pitfalls of adaptation. Frost/Nixon, directed with practiced fluidity by Ron Howard, surges with an energy and visual verve that improve the play and enhance the themes of dramatist Peter Morgan's script about the codependency of media and politics, and about the vanities of ambitious men shaping public images. Doubt, fussily overdirected by its author, John Patrick Shanley, dulls the play's own sharp inquiries into the dangerous power of those who profess certainty with God on their side.
Frost/Nixon trusts Sheen and Langella to re-create the roles they first originated to such acclaim in London in 2006, then moved to Broadway in 2007. Certainly the two stars know their characters inside and out: There's David Frost, the striving TV-age smoothie who savored his jet-set lifestyle but craved journalistic legitimacy; and there's Richard M. Nixon, the infinitely complicated politician forced to resign in the wake of Watergate, who craved well, obviously, he craved something, since he agreed (for a handsome fee) to sit with Frost through 12 days of taped interrogation. With the transcript as his guide, Morgan explores psychological terrain: how Frost found the chutzpah to land the interviews; how Nixon played cat and mouse with his interlocutor when asked to admit wrongdoing and apologize; how both men of humble beginnings felt stung by the scorn of those born with more privilege; and how both were superb manipulators. But Sheen (who played the very model of a modern British go-getter as Tony Blair in The Queen, also written by Morgan) and Langella (operating at the peak of his powers) are disciplined enough to crop their performances to close-up size. (The sizing echoes the look of the actual interviews.) And Howard is smart to enhance the one-on-ones with journalistic context, weaving archival Watergate-era footage into his fictionalized re-creation.
Streep and Hoffman, in contrast, translate roles memorably created by Cherry Jones and Brían F. O'Byrne as Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Without a doubt, the movie stars are primo ''gets'' in the famous-name sweepstakes. (They're aided by Viola Davis in a blazing, brief appearance as the mother of the boy who may or may not have received the priest's inappropriate attentions, and by Amy Adams in the wan role of a susceptible younger nun who becomes the agent of Sister Aloysius' terrible righteousness.) But Hoffman and Streep, especially, are also vulnerable actors in need of guidance from a director with a strong vision. And Shanley, in his first movie-helming gig since he leaped into his own script for Joe Versus the Volcano nearly two decades ago and lost, turns out to have dismayingly few original cinematic notions to back up the basic did-he-or-didn't-he hook in his study of conviction and compassion. There's not a wind-whipped leaf, rain-hammered window, or burned-out lightbulb the director doesn't admire, lest we ignore a metaphor about spiritual crisis.
Meanwhile, Streep, apparently left to her own devices, lugs a load of mannerisms under the pruny nun's severe black habit, encouraged by the movie's literal-minded director. Sister A may be an intimidating, spirit-breaking character but for all that, she's also a servant of God unswerving in her code of right and wrong, and we ought to feel her burden. We don't. Speaking lines written to reach the stage heavens, the cast is infernally noisy and hectoring about mysteries that ought to be felt with a communal hush. I doubt that's what the creator I mean the playwright had in mind. Doubt: C+; Frost/Nixon: A-
Amy Adams talks about Doubt