MOVIE REVIEW: Trumbo
November 5, 2015
Stand up and cheer for TRUMBO! Under Jay Roach's direction with an Oscar-worthy script from John McNamara, and thanks to an Oscar caliber performance by Bryan Cranston, TRUMBO celebrates the 1st Amendment and the conviction of one man, with dignity, integrity, courage, bravery and intelligence.
The Blacklist. Hollywood Ten. House Un-American Activities Committee. Dalton Trumbo. For many, these are just words, names. There is no historical sense of reference or context, let alone cinematic. But these “words” and these “people” are indeed a very important part of the fabric of American history in both film and politics.
The time is 1947. Dalton Trumbo is one of the most prolific screenwriters in Hollywood. He is one of the cogs in the Hollywood Dream Machine. But when Trumbo, other writers and one director are jailed for their being members of the Communist Party, they and many others in Hollywood become blacklisted. Using words and wit to expose the absurdity and the personal political agendas of some of those behind the blacklist, Dalton Trumbo not only surreptitiously helps keep an industry going and his fellow blacklisted writers employed, but wins two Academy Awards, and goes on to write two of the greatest films of all time - Otto Preminger’s EXODUS and Stanley Kubrick’s SPARTACUS.
Dalton Trumbo’s story was comprehensively and fascinatingly told in the 1977 biography by Bruce Cook, “Dalton Trumbo”, but now, under the direction of Jay Roach with script by John McNamara, comes to the silver screen as TRUMBO. As timely and topical today as when the actual events unfolded and occurred, John McNamara's script is a testament to Dalton Trumbo and his family, as well as an eye-opening historical reference for Hollywood historians and cinephiles alike, and as we see long before film’s end, Dalton Trumbo was more “American” as a registered Communist than most Americans are.
Best-selling author and renowned screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo was a Hollywood institution. Life was going swimmingly for him; that is until he took a very vocal and open stand in the battle between the Conference of Studio Unions and the studios. Already known as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, Trumbo’s union stance evoked the ire of none other than Los Angeles Times “gossip” columnist Hedda Hopper. With a readership of 32 million, her clout was heavier than the hammer and sickle on the flag of the Soviet Union, so when she cried “Red Menace”, people listened. To Hopper, standing up for the United States Constitution and the right to picket and strike didn’t make you patriotic; stamping out the perceived commie threat within the country and the Hollywood community was her #1 personal mission. And at the top of Hopper’s list was Dalton Trumbo.
It didn’t take long before the long held mantra of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it came to the political party preferences of Hollywood’s elite was thrown out the window thanks to the Hopper instigated witch hunt. Trumbo, as well as eight other writers and one director, soon found themselves called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and when they refused to “name names”, were held in contempt and the now infamous Hollywood Ten found themselves in jail.
On release from jail, Trumbo and the rest find themselves blacklisted and unemployable. With no income, Trumbo is forced to sell his beloved ranch and move into a neighborhood where his neighbors show hate and his children are taunted. But still, he and his friends need to work; and work they do, starting with Trumbo who writes a little film called “Roman Holiday”. While he can’t put his name to the work, his good friend Ian McClellan Hunter offers to be Trumbo’s front man and does so, with the screenplay eventually taking home Oscar gold.
Then the King Brothers come calling. Desperate for scripts to keep their B-movie machine running at full speed, they have no qualms about hiring blacklisted Trumbo and others to write scripts, as long as they write under assumed names. Working for minimal dollars and at break neck speed, the scripts keep coming and one of them, The Brave One, written by Trumbo, goes on to win a Best Screenplay Oscar. But yet again, Trumbo’s name is not announced. Rather, an alias he contrived is given the writing credit.
But Hedda Hopper continues with her crusade and trying to cause trouble for Trumbo and the others; that is, until an actor named Kirk Douglas working on a film called “Spartacus” and a director by the name of Otto Preminger readying a film called “Exodus” step into the picture.
Admitting that “we got our first choice on everyone”, for Roach, a cast like that in TRUMBO comes along maybe once in a lifetime and this one is dripping Oscar gold starting with Bryan Cranston. So embodying the very essence, manner and look of Dalton Trumbo himself, I'd be hard pressed to differentiate between Cranston and Trumbo if they were in a room together. Cranston is flawless. The intensity and passion that Cranston brings to the role and the film is riveting and gets under the skin as you watch. Resonating even more than the public Trumbo or the political Trumbo is Cranston's take on Trumbo the man, the husband, the father. The "normalcy" of the family and a father's love and his wanting a better world for his children and his deep love for human rights and equality just adds fuel to the argument of the subpoenas and investigations just being witch hunts, while showing the world that Dalton Trumbo was just like the rest of us no matter what his political affiliation. A father is a father. A husband is a husband. You work. You put food on the table and a roof over your family’s heads. Simply tour de force by Cranston.
As Trumbo’s arch nemesis, Helen Mirren infuses a regal villainy into Hedda Hopper that is drippingly delicious. You can almost see the fangs emerge, the claws sharpening and the venom oozing with each slippery smile. Completing the picture is a constant parade of fashion and hats for which Hopper was well known, the latter of which add a touch of whimsy and “kookiness” that counters the venom of the character, serving to enhance Mirren’s performance.
Diane Lane is at the top of her game as stalwart devoted wife Cleo Trumbo while Elle Fanning breaks more adult ground with a 20+ years emotional and physical transformation going from age 16 to 31 in the course of the film. Standout are Fanning’s teenaged toe-to-toe scenes with Cranston.
Michael Stuhlbarg again is the embodiment of old Hollywood. As he did in “Hitchcock” playing a young Lew Wasserman and now here as Edward G. Robinson, his meticulous attention to nuance, vocal cadence, movement is immersive. And Richard Portnow as Louie B. Mayer is a delight. Interesting is Louis C.K.’s turn as Alan Hird, a composite of five different members of the Hollywood Ten. A strong dramatic turn to be sure.
My admiration only grows with each performance I see by Alan Tudyk and James DuMont. Here, DuMont is a scene-stealing joy as big mouthed nebbish J. Parnell Thomas while Tudyk captures the elegance and class that seemed to always float around Ian McClellan Hunter. And speaking of scene stealing, one need look no further than John Goodman who brings great levity to the proceedings as B-movie schlock king, Frank King.
Not to be overlooked are indelible performances by Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas and Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger. While Berkel joins Goodman in adding some comedic touches, O’Gorman has you doing double takes, and not because he “looks” like Kirk Douglas, but because he captures the indomitable presence and essence of Douglas. Striking performance to say the least.
One casting shortcoming, however, is David James Elliott as John Wayne. He never quite “sells” the patriotic Wayne or the commanding presence that Wayne held. What does create that sense is cinematographer Jim Denault’s lensing as he dutches the camera to give the illusion that both Wayne and Mirren’s Hopper are “larger than life”.
Directed by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara based on Bruce Cook’s biography “Dalton Trumbo”, key is the balance of TRUMBO, as together Roach and McNamara meld the cinematic history with larger than life characters, the political elements and the family situation. According to McNamara, “The political stuff was. . .all done with research. Just tons and tons and tons of reading. Seeing into the life and the historical similarity of the characters. . .[For] the family, I give almost all credit to Jay Roach, Niki Trumbo and Mitzi Trumbo. They were amazing at continually digging and mining; especially the sisters were incredible. They are so giving and so honest and so unwilling to take the easy way out, and they showed me the truth of what their life and what it was like to be his children. It really was years of research and years of spending time with them.” Also important to McNamara was “looking at it from as many aspects of the human life as possible. That was one of the things. We stuck to [TRUMBO] as a point of view. That helped us really understand who he was as a man, father, husband, writer, political activist.”
Jim Denault’s lensing captures the texture of the time, complete with seamless blending of actual newsreel footage (check out Ronald Reagan testifying before Congress) with recreations that then dissolve together. Interesting visuals that are also beyond metaphoric are scenes with TRUMBO in a bathtub or in his office. (Trivia tidbit for you: Trumbo was known for writing while in the bathtub.) When Trumbo is on a roll, free thinking, the camera widens a bit, breathes. But when amped up on Benzedrine and Bourbon, or rewriting under time crunches, Denault’s camera moves in tight, as if putting the audience inside Trumbo's head and mindset. We feel the pressure, the world closing in on him. Brilliantly designed.
Expect to hear production designer Mark Ricker’s name come Oscar nominations morning. As he did with “The Help”, Ricker is once again period perfect with attention to detail while another hot Oscar contender, Daniel Orlandi, is not only period perfect with costuming, but DAZZLES with designs for Mirren’s Hopper in garments, millinery and jewelry.
TRUMBO is the very human story of a very dark time in US and Hollywood history. Movies can and do control the public and public perception. They can be used for good or evil. Like Dalton Trumbo himself, TRUMBO is a film that serves the greater good, showing that good and truth do triumph when you have a man like Dalton Trumbo holding the reins, and democracy should never be taken for granted.
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara based on the book “Dalton Trumbo” by Bruce Cook
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Elle Fanning, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, James DuMont, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, David James Elliott