Friday, December 4, 2015

Trumbo: The writer as triumphant gadfly

Trumbo(2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and coarse sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.4.15

You have to love ironic serendipity.

When Trumbo was scripted, and then green-lighted for production, and then filmed — with much of its dialog lifted directly from legendary Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s actual speeches and testimony, and delivered so superbly by star Bryan Cranston — nobody could have anticipated that this impeccably mounted and rigorously authentic drama would be released just as our country is poised to repeat the same ghastly mistake made with Japanese American citizens during World War II, and the so-called “Communist sympathizers” who were blacklisted during the 1950s.

Packed tightly into a movie theater filled with eager patrons, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)
and his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), await the film's all-important credits.
One of whom — Trumbo — is the subject of director Jay Roach’s heartfelt and thoroughly mesmerizing film.

Mesmerizing for two reasons: because of scripter John McNamara’s skillful adaptation of veteran journalist Bruce Cook’s 1976 biography, written with Trumbo’s full cooperation; and because of Cranston’s richly nuanced portrayal of the feisty novelist, screenwriter and social agitator.

No question: Trumbo was a character, and Cranston captures the famed scribe’s numerous eccentricities, righteous indignation and insufferable idealism. Trumbo fought the good fight, and lived to talk about it; his thorn-in-the-side persistence — assisted, at just the right moment, by a few Hollywood heavyweights — helped break the blacklist, and put an end to the ultimately ineffectual scare-mongering tactics that emanated from the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Roach and McNamara re-create this shameful bit of American history with the same darkly droll tinge of humor with which Trumbo peppered both his casual conversation and his screenplays. Actually, that’s an misstatement; Trumbo’s conversation rarely was casual, and Cranston gleefully chews into McNamara’s dialog — and Trumbo’s own words — with the enthusiasm of a hyena tearing at a carcass.

We’ve been down this road before, notably with 1976’s The Front — made with numerous individuals, both in front of and behind the camera, who had been smeared by the blacklist — 1991’s Guilty by Suspicion and 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck.

The latter was highlighted by David Strathairn’s eerily authentic portrayal of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. Cranston takes a slightly different approach with Trumbo, nailing the man’s behavior and wonderfully rich verbal vitriol, without really trying to imitate him. As easily observed in the period photos and news clips that appear during the closing credits, Cranston doesn’t really look much like Trumbo.

By my, he sure sounds and acts like him.

The story opens in the aftermath of World War II, by which point Trumbo had become one of Hollywood’s hottest and most popular screenwriters; credits included A Bill of Divorcement, Kitty Foyle, A Guy Named Joe and Tender Comrade. In the publishing world, his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun won one of the initial National Book Awards, as 1939’s most original book.

He also was an unapologetic member of the Communist Party, a distinction he shared with numerous individuals who had suffered during the Great Depression. Although not the slightest bit ashamed of the wealth that allowed his family to enjoy the pleasures of a large ranch estate, Trumbo also believed that Hollywood’s various craftspeople — such as set builders — deserved a living wage.

In this regard, he’s not adored by studio heads who’d love to do something about him ... but can’t stop relying on his uncanny ability to churn out hit movies.

(Trumbo really was remarkably good, and even more remarkably fast. We get a strong sense of that here, but not the full picture; he’s credited with a staggering 53 produced screenplays between 1936 and 1960 ... and he very likely wrote far more than that.)

Trumbo’s progressive politics are shared by many Hollywood friends and colleagues, most notably actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and fellow writers Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). In turn, these individuals are loathed by Hollywood conservatives such as John Wayne (David James Elliott) and, most particularly, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren).

Whatever happens outside the home, however, Trumbo has the unflagging support of his loyal and patient wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), and their three children: Niki, Chris and Mitzi.

As the “red scare” and Hollywood purge ramp up, Trumbo — who genuinely loves his country — just as genuinely can’t imagine that such blatantly unconstitutional persecution of people, strictly for their beliefs, will linger for more than a year or two. This is to become one of his rare errors in judgment.

McNamara’s script skillfully charts what follows, from the unplanned loss in the U.S. Supreme Court — after the unexpected death of a liberal judge — and the jail terms given Trumbo and other members of the “Hollywood Ten.” What comes next is the best part, as the endlessly imaginative and ferociously clever Trumbo figures out how to beat Hollywood at its own game.

Rarely has revenge been dished out so sweetly.

But not without cost.

Other larger-then-life characters enter the story at this point, most notably hack producer Frank King, who was in the late 1940s and early ’50s what Roger Corman would become in the 1960s and ’70s: an impressively successful purveyor of junk movies. John Goodman was born to play this role, and his larger-than-life rendition of King is both hilarious and refreshingly candid (the latter a rare quality in honesty-averse Tinseltown).

Actually, while Cranston steals the show, everybody in this film is both well cast and quite strong in their respective roles. Mirren is jaw-droppingly nasty as Hopper: a tabloid witch who wields her power with deliberate cruelty, and — as presented here — thoroughly enjoys squashing her enemies. Mirren has played several vicious characters during her long and remarkable career, but her Hedda Hopper may be the topper; one brutal diatribe against MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) will scorch eyebrows.

(Although I’d long been aware of Hopper’s various cruelties, I was surprised by this film’s no-holds-barred depiction of her anti-Semitism ... which, after some research, appears to be well-founded.)

Louis C.K. is quietly powerful as Trumbo’s frequent debating foil and (so it would seem) best friend. Hird is this saga’s one prominent fictitious character: a composite of the many lesser Hollywood writers who — lacking Trumbo’s resilience — were buried by the blacklist. Hird therefore stands in for all such victims, and C.K. — best known as a comedian — gives a deeply sensitive performance.

Lane’s Cleo is quiet, tolerant and forgiving ... until she isn’t. The shift, when it comes, makes a strong statement.

Elle Fanning takes over, later in the story, as Trumbo’s elder daughter Niki; she shines as the mirror in which her father eventually perceives what frustrated monomania has turned him into.

Also during this third act, Dean O’Gorman is marvelous as Kirk Douglas; Christian Berkel is even better — and hilarious — as the imperious director Otto Preminger. Both come along at a pivotal moment in Trumbo’s unyielding shadow war against the blacklist.

Theodore Shapiro’s jazz-inflected score evokes both the noirish atmosphere of many 1950s films, and the equally dark activities taking place in the real world. Cinematographer Jim Denault has fun replicating old-style film stock and style, while production designer Mark Ricker gives us a thoroughly authentic depiction of these (mostly) Eisenhower years.

As a sidebar, Cranston is a sure bet for an Academy Award nomination, and McNamara has a similarly strong shot. They certainly have my vote.

Roach, primarily known as the comedy director responsible for Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, nonetheless delivers an impressively passionate and thoroughly engaging drama here, craftily building suspense and layering irony much the way Tom McCarthy did in Spotlight. Both films are valuable historical documents; both should be required viewing for folks blandly willing to trust — and follow — Those In Power.

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