Bryan Cranston as Trumbo — who did write in a tub, while drinking alcohol and smoking …
Dear friends and readers,
I recommend not missing this film. Whatever the flaws, this is a strong film I wish everyone in the US would see. Alas, it’s a film for our Trump time.
To begin with, qua film it’s better than Truth (a story of the destruction of Mary Mapes’s career upon her attempting to expose Bush Jr’s lies about his military career), which never ceases to be presented in a hyped melodramatic fashion that prevents the viewer from having any sense of the real character of Mapes, though it does project the (today important) political message that news organizations have been hijacked and corrupted by political organizations and the profit motive. See “Why TV News must die:”: Bad tv news outlets cheer on horrendous candidates in sickly parodies of journalism, and those monstrous campaigns make money for the tv outlets.” It’s also dangerous for they promote bad people to office.
This is due largely to Cranston’s persuasive enactment of the man through a script that does trace his private as well as outward political and screenplay-writing life over a thirty-year period. Jordan Mintzer of Hollywood Reporter:
Cranston, who sheds the mimicry and pontificating of earlier scenes to turn Trumbo into a wry, self-deprecating and somewhat cheeky older man, even if he continued to stand up for what was right
Ty Burr of The Boston Globe:
Cranston’s performance is the motor that runs Trumbo, and that motor never idles, never flags in momentum or magnetism or idealistic scorn.
The pace of the film is also much slower than Truth, Trumbo boasts scenes longer than the usual of popular-style movies nowadays. Jay Roach was the director, probably appropriately the person to give credit to here is the writer, John McNamara. I say appropriately for an important phase of Trumbo’s career was his work was his writing for The Screen Writer where for years he was (rightly) scathing about the film industry’s bathetic scripts, crude commercialism, and significantly reactionary politics. The first subject is dear to my heart as anyone who reads my blog will know: I wrote a paper last spring on “The Importance of Screenplays” as a central instrument to making and understanding a fine film.
Trumbo also does not succumb to the mystery-suspense thriller plot-design increasingly ubiquitous to the extent it forms the spine of the recent Suffragette, a third political film for this season. (A fourth is Bridge of Spies, which apparently boasts a remarkable performance by Mark Rylance as the British spy working for Russians.)
Instead it harks back to the very 1940s style films Trumbo himself wrote: an “inspirational struggle of our Horatio Alger hero against the forces of darkness” (I quote from Bruce Biskind’s review in Cineaste). Incessant hard work, earnest caring about his fellow human beings, controlled courage when humiliated (in a powerful prison scene Trumbo is stripped naked and forced to display his private body parts to a heavily-armed guard on the other side of bars), over-worked in prison (and jeered at, insulted by an ironic black man who “hates” communists because they don’t “love this country” which has done so much for him), a strong talent which he manages to sell to D-film-makers carries our hero through to breaking the blacklist (we are told). And at the close of the film we get the final rousing speech, in this film moving delivered in a film clip of Trumbo himself in an interview he gave after it was revealed he had written Spartacus. The film harked back to 1930s and 40s films I’ve seen where Ronald Colman (Talk of the Town) and Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) take this role and it can still be seen in the still watched Jimmy Stewart telling us It’s a Wonderful Life!.
Beyond Cranston’s performance (and the actors playing with him, especially Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird), the film interweaves the present film with documentary film from the 1950s through 70s. These are startlingly revealing and make the analogous points the film-makers surely meant: HUAC insists in these documents cuts on its right to invade the privacy of US citizens “to protect the nation” from “enemies;” the first amendment is laughed at. We see a young ever so plausible Ronald Reagan. We see John Wayne haranguing people. I went with a friend who said substitute the word “Muslim” for communist and we could be in 2015. We glimpse the murder of the Rosenbergs. Some of the actors are dressed successfully to look close to, and act like the original people. Towards the end of the film when Cranston is an aging Trumbo he looks like him. These give needed ballast to the central threads.
I say needed because there is a great deal here that is gratingly untrue or evaded. The impression is given Trumbo just about single-handedly undermined and destroyed the blacklist by writing so many money-making screeplays and at least two academy award winners. He did support himself by writing scripts that sold movies under a pseudonym and at least three of these were nominated or given prestigious awards, but the blacklist had begun to deteriorate slowly with the advent of TV. He did nothing single-handedly which I’ve a hunch he’d have been the first to say.
One thing Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid shows is that the production code as much as political censorship was responsible for the inanities of popular films until the middle 1950s, and films like those made by Kazan (On the Waterfront no matter how rightist and Streetcar Named Desire), as importantly, The Pawnbroker (1964) ended vigilant vigilance, preparing the way for a more adult presentation of political ideas. The full truth would have to take into account the effect of British and other European films of the 1980s (My Beautiful Laundrette); only recently have films like Trumbo become common once again. it is untrue that Edward G. Robinson named names; he testified three times and called himself “a dupe of the communists” but he never named anyone.
Helen Mirren as the vicious Hedda Hopper (she was)
Evaded also is Trumbo’s long career as a eloquent polemicist: he was himself targeted, a scapegoat on the basis of his own fierce hostility to the preponderance of terrible films in The Hollywood Spectator. He made enemies. Roach’s films shows Trumbo standing up for the rights of production crews to strike for higher wages. But Trumbo attacked the inflated incomes of the movie owners: he was a pre-2015 attacker of egregious inequality (see Tim Palmer, “Side of the Angels: Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood Trade Press and the Blacklist,” Cinema Journal 14:4 (2005):57-74). I would be surprised the movie didn’t bring this out to make more analogies, but have read it’s based on Bruce Cook’s biography where fundamental research into other aspects of Trumbo’s career does not appear to have been done, or if so, used. There is no serious examination of the 1950: Trumbo’s great work is the tract, The Time of the Toad, comparable to Lilian Hellman’s Soundrel Time. The experiential emphasis of the film is on the trajectory of Trumbo’s admirable endurance of prison, years of incessant demeaning effort, ostracism, and (made into a comedy) final break-through when his apparently mindless bosses throw the persecutors out using a large heavy stick.
Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird
Still as a political statement and viscerally moving story, Trumbo is as good as Suffragette, and like Suffragette better than most films I’ve seen all year — especially if you consider its theme. It shows the destruction of many lives; it reminds me of Kenneth Johnson’s Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1970s in conveying how little it takes to rob someone of a decent place to live, to ruin someone’s private relationships, make sure they never fulfill their talents or are useful to society.
This is where the story of Arlen Hird comes in: the movie shows everyone continually smoking, and this man develops cancer. The disease goes into remission but he finds himself unable to produce shlock under a false name rapidly and the stress and misery of his existence (his wife leaves him) leads to an early death. You see how easily hatred and fear is whipped up among people. The film ends on the real Trumbo talking in an interview with a powerful statement that now he has gotten back his name.
If only it were as easy to get rid of those who can put people into prison for political beliefs and activities as John Goodman as Frank King manages:
It’s a condescending easy quip making fun to call it “a B-movie about an A-list screenwriter”. Like Suffragette because of the way it’s made it will reach a large audience and appeal to their sympathies, to what they admire, what they would like to believe is true, that an individual can “win against the system.” We need more of this kind of didacticism if that’s what it takes to teach or reach people. Peter DeBruge of Variety:
Trumbo may be clumsy and overly simplistic at times, but it’s still an important reminder of how democracy can fail (that is, when a fervent majority turns on those with different and potentially threatening values), and the strength of character it takes to fight the system
Earlier this year I strongly recommended Diane Johnson’s biography of Dashiell Hammett: A life and I reiterate that. Johnson demonstrates that in the immediate post WW2 period: very quickly persecutions began, quickly committees formed to “root” out communism (really FDRism), a number of laws passed which parallel Hitler’s early years (outlawing the communist party — freedom of speech means no outlawing parties). Making the world safe for the fascism to bloom we’ve seen since; the McCarthy era was this brought to a high pitch of terror. He was eventually helplessly ill, destroyed by thugs, a poignant story.
Having watched the film I found myself taking down from my shelves Trumbo’s The Time of the Toad, subtitled (by the way) A Study of Inquisition in America and putting it on my TRB pile as necessary to recall and blog about in this world where Donald Trump is said to be a front-runner in Republican polls for the President of the US and has advocated shutting down or severe controls on who can use the Internet.
Toad as in toadies