Thursday, December 03, 2015

Trumbo a film review by William Falcetano


a film review by William Falcetano

Our fate, whether we like it or not, is that the cinema has become our history textbook.  It is from movies that people learn about the Holocaust, President Kennedy’s assassination, Iwo Jima.   Some film makers carry out this pedagogical function brilliantly; others take too many liberties, or worse, distort history altogether in the service of vile bigotry (D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation) or loathsome ideology (Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).   Cinema can teach lessons both true and false, and can do so well or badly.  Film can be propaganda or education; and as in education the student must carefully select the teacher.  In the case of Jay Roach’s tribute film to Dalton Trumbo we have an example of how the cinema can be both educator and entertainer. 

Mr. Roach pits against each other two powerful performers – Bryan Cranston, whose Walter White of Breaking Bad and whose portrayal of President Johnson on Broadway has catapulted him into the stratosphere of stars, and Dame Helen Mirren, who has spent her whole career in that elevated rank of best actors.   These strong-willed figures engage in a titanic high-stakes struggle full of mutual loathing that forms the central dramatic axis of this moveable feast of a film.  Both characters – the screen writer Dalton Trumbo and his nemesis the Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper – are so finely accoutered, so impeccably dressed, and so authentically turned out that you would think you were thrust back into the post war world of the late 1940s by some sort of virtual reality machine.  The brilliant technicolor look of the costumes and the sunshiny lighting of Southern California border on the cartoonish.  These ultra-real touches are set side by side with actual black-and-white film footage from the era, depicting real people in newsreels or in film.  But Mr. Roach goes one further and includes “rusticated” versions of his own faux-authentic film in which actors play actors, such as John Wayne or Kirk Douglas, or real figures such as President Kennedy.  At the very end of the movie the audience is given a chance to judge the faithfulness of Mr. Cranston’s Dalton Trumbo when footage of the actual Mr. Trumbo appears and his speech patterns, his cadence, his urbane manner all resemble the theatrical illusion created by that magician of an actor, as if life were imitating art.

What we remember today as “the McCarthy era” was a kind of miasma of fear and paranoia that spread throughout the country.  Hardly anyone was untouched by it; even those who acquitted themselves well for a time, such as the great Edward G. Robinson, wavered, buckled under the pressure, or cooperated with the witch hunt to give up information (“I only gave them what they already knew”, Robinson, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, protests in a line strikingly familiar to us from James “Whitey” Bulger). 

When we meet Dalton Trumbo he is at the height of his career on a stage set with Edward G. Robinson playing a gangster, holding a revolver in a period-perfect film noir – this is a movie about movie-making.  Trumbo signs a contract with Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), head of Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Studios, for a record sum – he is the best paid writer in Hollywood.  But the right-wing Hedda Hopper is playing hard ball; she corners her former lover Louis B. Mayer in his office in an attempt to intimidate him into breaking his contract with Trumbo (he does).  An audible gasp went up from the audience when Mirren delivers an ethnic slur like a punch below the belt.

Then it all falls apart, as other actors, led by John “Duke” Wayne, played with convincing heft by David James Elliot, Ronald “Dutch” Reagan, and Robert Taylor, form a committee of their own to uphold “American ideals”.  Reagan and Taylor are seen giving testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Trumbo, as one of “the Hollywood Ten”, is imprisoned for contempt of congress; after he is released, he cannot find work – he’s been blacklisted.  (“What’s your position on the blacklist?” one reporter asks – “on it” was his terse and witty reply.)  

One sub-plot involves Trumbo’s friend Arlen Hird, played by the comedian-turned-actor Louis C.K.  Mr. Székely is not a bad actor; but he is not in the same league as Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston.  The movie would have been improved had Mr. Roach shortened or cut scenes calculated to evoke sympathy for Mr. Hird, a smoker who loses a lung (Trumbo is hardly ever without his cigarette holder in this era when smoking was deemed glamorous).  The same can be said for Roger Bart’s role as the oily movie producer Buddy Ross.  Movies alas are our textbooks; but when they try to be as detailed as books they can falter or fail.  Sometimes less is more. 

The next part of the film depicts Mr. Trumbo’s slow, arduous ascent from this low point in the 1950s to the rehabilitation of his reputation – and his career – in the 1960s, ending with his acceptance speech in 1970, when he receives a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Writers Guild.  Mr. Cranston brings out the true grit and calm toughness of Dalton Trumbo – who not only served time in prison for his ideals, he clawed his way back into the game script by script, revising the work of hacks, and writing his own screenplays for the mercenary B movie mogul Frank King, played with gruff and gleeful corpulence by John Goodman.   One of these scripts – The Brave One – wins the academy award for “best story” (the last film to do so), only to be received by a representative of the Screen Writers Guild on behalf of the fictional “Robert Rich”, pseudonym for Dalton Trumbo, who must watch the festivities on TV surrounded by his cheering family. 

It was his family that gave him heart through this trial by fire, and it was his family that pulled together – each working jobs as couriers, operators, or typists to keep the machine running smoothly to pay the bills.  Dalton’s daughter Nikola Trumbo, played by Elle Fannnig, was a consultant on the film and it reflects her point of view.  She ends up taking on her father’s toughness and his ideals after the obligatory adolescent struggle.  Trumbo’s wife Cleo is played by the amazing Diane Lane who portrays the loyal 1950s wife – but with a twist when she stands up to her husband when his tyrannical quest not to be beaten by “them” turns him into a bully.  The courage to stand up to bullies is what this movie is all about.

The big breakthrough comes when the great director Otto Preminger (played by a bald Christian Berkel) bucks the system and credits Dalton Trumbo for the screenplay for Exodus; then Kirk Douglas (played here with uncanny resemblance by Dean O’Gorman) let it be known that Trumbo was one of the screenwriters for Spartacus, the sword and sandal epic, starring Douglas as the slave-turned-revolutionary and Lawrence Olivier, who appears in a scene from the film in bad Roman drag.  Trumbo is a film about films and the business of film making, in which writers write about writers, and vindicate a noble craft along with one of the martyrs of that profession who stood up for the ideals of free expression and free association.  Against him were powerful and popular figures such as John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Hedda Hopper, who wrapped themselves in the flag in the name of “American ideals”, only to soil that flag and scar the country for which it stands.  Brave ones made their voices heard, including Humphrey Bogart and his “dishy” wife, the incomparable Lauren Bacall – both seen in grainy video protesting like ordinary citizens.  The voice of Lucille Ball is heard on the radio defending the constitution with unassailable common sense.  Others acquit themselves honorably or shamefully.  

Aristotle famously defined tragedy as the kind of drama in which the hero passes from happiness to misery.  Our hero does this; but then moves in the opposite direction – from the nadir of his career in the 1950s to his apotheosis in 1975, when he is belatedly given the academy award for The Brave One – bravery, it seems, is something this writer knew a little bit about.  We find ourselves leaving this movie, which comes at a time that is beginning eerily to resemble the fear and loathing of that ugly chapter of American history, wishing we could say the same for our country. 

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