Friday, November 27, 2015

New movie review: Trumbo

Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo in director Jay Roach's historical drama Trumbo.

The U.S. has suffered a few black eyes over the years, mostly its own doing and mostly revolving around unfounded persecution. Native populations, blacks, women, Japanese, a whole cross-section of Europeans, and practitioners of most major and minor non-Protestant Christian religions have all been on the receiving end of the distinctly American us-vs.-them treatment. In the harsh light of history, all of these cases have been rightly viewed as affronts to human dignity.

Among the more fascinating ages in this country’s short history is the mid-20th century, when we rabidly feared communist aggression and insidious socialist agendas. Not a decade removed from four terms of the most socialist president the U.S. is likely ever to have, congress swung the pendulum the other direction in a big way with the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s legislative witch hunts.

Hollywood has gone to this well a few times, most recently and most successfully with George Clooney’s stellar Goodnight and Good Luck, about newsman Edward R. Murrow’s fight against McCarthy. Now comes director Jay Roach’s Trumbo, which looks at the role Hollywood itself played in discriminating against ideas deemed dangerous or subversive. Trumbo plays like a lighter companion piece to the Clooney film, neither as hard hitting nor as tightly crafted but not without merit.

Cranston in Trumbo.
Bryan Cranston, in his first major post-Breaking Bad screen appearance, plays Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter and novelist at the top of the world. As the film begins, Trumbo’s books and movies are never more popular, he and his lovely family live on a massive estate, and he signs a deal to become the highest paid writer in Hollywood. Writer John McNamara, adapting the book Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Cook, spends the first half of his script stripping away everything Trumbo has spent his life building. The second half chronicles his fight against the system that tried to destroy him.

The plot kicks off with Congress becoming concerned with the messages being promoted by Hollywood films – an unsurprising and sadly still relevant turn of events. Showing a cowardice that had hurt it before and would hurt it again, the movie industry took steps to censor itself under the spurious logic that if anyone was going to harm the film business, it might as well be the studios themselves. In this way, the infamous blacklist was born.

The Hollywood Ten, which counted among its ranks Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr., chose not to answer HUAC’s questions and were cited for contempt of Congress. They took their battle to the Supreme Court, where they lost, and most of them ended up in prison, except for one who turned against the group and cooperated with the investigation. When Trumbo gets out of prison, he finds himself to be a pariah, unable to work or support his family.

He and a number of other members of the Hollywood Ten began taking writing jobs from schlock movie producer Frank King (John Goodman) and producing scripts under aliases. This specific topic was tackled in the tremendous and tremendously underrated 1976 comedy The Front, directed by Martin Ritt. Trumbo certainly has elements of that earlier film but fills in the history around the edges for audiences who are another four decades removed from the era.

Roach, known mostly for comedies such as Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers series, is a bit out of his element directing a historical drama. There is an undercurrent of black comedy running through the film, but it is tempered by the gravity of the events being depicted. Traditionally comic performers such as Louis CK and Alan Tudyk deliver solid, measured performances in supporting roles, and even the most overtly comic character, King, benefits from committed, carefully crafted work by Goodman. It should be noted Diane Lane and Helen Mirren also provide sharp supporting performances in less well defined roles as the wife (Lane as Cleo Trumbo) and antagonist (Mirren as Hedda Hopper).

Helen Mirren and Cranston in Trumbo.
Where Roach gets in trouble is in the details. Namely, there are too many. Running more than two hours, the movie feels at least an hour longer and could easily have been a half-hour shorter. Roach and McNamara get bogged down in their step-by-step recounting of the trials of the Hollywood Ten early on and the writing of the King scripts later. There is something to be said for historical context and a desire to get the details right, but good filmmakers know when to trust the audience, and Trumbo too often feels as though it is holding the audience’s hand.

It is a shame because if ever there were a story that could breeze by on the strength of its emotional resonance, it is this one. The communist witch hunts and Hollywood blacklist are such a clear systemic failure that audiences need just a basic understanding of the events to become invested in the struggle of those facing persecution. Had the filmmakers stripped away some of the minutiae, they could have given the story much more room to breathe and cleared the way for Cranston’s towering central performance.

As with his famous portrayal of television anti-hero Walter White, Cranston absolutely commands the screen as Trumbo. He imbues his Trumbo with a brash, swaggering confidence and a palpable sense of righteous indignation. He has the maniacal single-mindedness of someone who believes there is a right and wrong answer to every question and also believes he always has the right answer.

The world according to Trumbo: Early in the film, his daughter asks him if she is a communist since he is. He proposes a scenario in which she has a sandwich and another child at school does not. Would she share her sandwich or tell the other kid to get a job and buy his own sandwich? Share, she says. Then, she is as much a communist as he is. The script occasionally buys into this highly simplified worldview, but Cranston never does. At all times, he is selling the nuances of a broken system that Trumbo refuses to let break him.

Cranston does not play Trumbo as a hero so much as an indignant rabble rouser who happens to be on the side of good. It is because of people like Trumbo, Murrow, the Hollywood Ten, and others that we are able to look back critically on times when ignorance and injustice threatened to destroy us from within – if only we could look at ourselves with the same critical lens, learn from our mistakes, and not repeat them. That world might be an okay place to live.

See it? Yes.

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