Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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 Post subject: Jay Roach: Trumbo (2015)
PostPosted: Sun Nov 22, 2015 5:44 pm 
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Hacks and heroes

The inglorious era of red scares, blacklisted writers, and the Hollywood Ten gets a biopic in Trumbo, a movie about the life of the most famous of those writers whom Hollywood bigwigs hastened to condemn and exclude in 1947, Dalton Trumbo. Abandoned by a suddenly more conservative Supreme Court than they'd banked on, the ten went to jail for contempt of Congress, and their livelihood was shaky for a decade, and there were those who lost their families or died. For some, this may provide new information about the red-baiting period, which goes as far back as the Russian revolution but had its heyday in the late Forties and early Fifties, though it shattered careers into the Sixties. Trumbo's story ends positively, since after years of hack work and pseudonyms, he gained major recognition when Otto Preminger openly hired him to do the screen adaptation of Leon Uris's Exodus and Kirk Douglas then put out a press release acknowledging Trumbo scripted the Kubrick blockbuster he headlined, Spartacus (both in 1960). With these two high-profile victories, Trumbo ("Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston) and his wife Cleo (the steadfast Diane Lane) tell each other "it's over." Later Trumbo's secret authorship of the Oscar-winning screenplays for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956) was acknowledged, the latter just before his death, the former posthumously.

And then, the movie's over. There's a certain irony in a story that shows a lot of Hollywood hack writing being done that makes you keep asking yourself "Who wrote this stuff?" Because this is not subtle or resonant storytelling. It's just a run-through, making liberal use of clips (HUAC hearings, bits of movies Trumbo wrote) with a host of walk-throughs of famous characters in the story -- Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Jack Warner, Edward G. Robinson -- by actors who don't look or sound like them, with Bryan Cranston doing Trumbo as one continual shtick. It's journeyman acting depicting a journeyman scribe (of talent and energy, clearly). He quaffs whiskey, pops bennies, chews on his cigarette holder in every scene, sits in his bathtub as in the famous photo tapping out scripts on his typewriter, refusing even to share birthday cake with his teenage daughter. Trumbo has little sense of tone, nor does it give a clear sense of how we should take the man. There's more drudgery than drama or tragedy. Though the director, Jay Roach, is known for such masterpieces as Meet the Fockers and Dinner for Shmucks, possibilities for fun are realized here only in the few scenes with John Goodman as Frank King, the prolific B-Picture producer, who was willing to hire Trumbo at a cut rate that required him to mass-produce junk. Having no reputation and playing to an, in his view, illiterate audience, King could thumb his nose at the right wing guardians of political purity. How all this sorts out politically or intellectually gets short shrift. We do see that Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg in a thankless role), who had hosted meetings of the left-leading Screen Writers Guild, got scared and turned on his radical friends for Congress to get work. Wasn't Trumbo forced to live and work in Mexico for a considerable period? That doesn't seem to be shown here. Even Helen Mirren seems a generic biddy in her thankless role as the red-baiting Hedda Hopper, who was eager to screw commies and called Louis B. Mayer to his face a "kike."

There are books about the blacklisting era and several documentary films including Thom Andersen and Noël Burch's recently reformatted 1996 film Red Hollywood, and David Helpern's 1976 Hollywood on Trial, narratied by John Huston (the latter you can view on YouTube, and read a socialist critique of here). From the more detailed historical sources you may fill in more about this subject that it would behove Americans to understand and take a personal stand on. Trumbo doesn't have any lines or scenes to illuminate the complexities of being a socialist or a communist during the Depression era, or clarify in any detail how the post-WWII development of the Cold War changed things. A key figure is Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), who clearly got preachy in his scripts about workers' rights and stuff like that -- but the movie is more interested in how he's a loose canon and is dying of lung cancer. He keeps on enthusiastically smoking even after losing one lung, and maybe people were that stupid back then.

Trumbo, as seen here, was a decent fellow. He funded lawyers for his codefendants, and helped those in need, getting sub-rosa work for the others through King. But was he smart? Was he noble and principled? He was a breadwinner, but was he much of a dad? Weren't some of these guys actually agents for Russia and promoting Stalin, or at least trying to be, at certain times? That possibility is why some conservatives take issue with ennobling the Hollywood Ten and insist the blacklisting was not such a bad thing. This movie has reportedly unleashed "venomous half-truths" from Ann Coulter and other right-wingers. Gay, Christian, conservative black critic Armond White has ritually joined in the attack. Theirs is a viewpoint that crumbles when we examine McCarthyism. But political complexity is not Hollywood's long suit. The communist writers in Hollywood may have been foolish, but at least that was an era when ideas -- in particular political ones -- actually had currency in Tinseltown. It's startling to hear in Trumbo that in 1957, when Trumbo's The Brave One script won (though he was not named), two of the other nominees were Jean-Paul Satre (for The Proud and the Beautiful) and Cesare Zavattini (for Umberto D.). Oh, those Oscars!

Trumbo, 124 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2015; a few festivals including London. US release 6 Nov. Screened for this review at Landmark California Theater, Berkeley, 22 Nov.

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