There are currently two films in theatres that have a couple things in common. They will undoubtedly garner Oscar attention, and they are both about the same Cold War period in the US , tackling Fascism and the fanatical fear of Communism; Bridge of Spies and Trumbo. It’s a fascinating period to honor, and an even more fascinating time we’re currently trudging through politically, as our myopic xenophobia has brought us closer to this shameful political atmosphere than any other time since. As we have become whipped into hysteria by rhetoric and fear mongering, “we” peer with paranoia over our shoulders, mistrusting those who look, talk or act differently than “we” do. (Who really is “we” anymore, anyway?)
I have always had a personal interest (nee “obsession”) with the Hollywood Blacklist; not just the abhorrent idea that people can be forced out of their careers by holding values or principles different from the norm, but that you can be forced by threat of contempt to “name names” (antithetical to the constitution, btw) and “squeal” on friends and co-workers to save your own hide.
But now it seems a very murky cause to get behind, mostly because it can’t be painted in blacks and whites, and Hollywood hates any story that can’t be relegated to the big and broad topics of good guy/bad guy. Several times there have been attempts to bottle the fear and hysteria of this period with, as always, mixed results. Woody Allen’s The Front took a by-product of the period, the apolitical mercenary who would “stand-in” for the blacklisted writer in name only, which was a critically successful rendering. Irwin Winkler’s 1991 broad stroked Guilty By Suspicion starring Robert DeNiro, took a more precious, and unintentionally distanced style, leaving anyone without a strong knowledge of the period, more than baffled.
And so it is with Trumbo. Well intentioned, it still reduces down the grey shadings of this time to broadly defined “talking points.” Dalton Trumbo, the artist, was one of the most important and talented writers of the 40s and 50s, and his impact on cinema is unquestionable. An admitted communist, he rallies with other, more liberal leaning artists to stand against the House Un-American Activities Committee, believing that the mere questioning of political affiliation was unconstitutional. He stuck to his guns to the point that he wasn’t just blacklisted, but imprisoned as part of the Hollywood 10 for “contempt of court.” Soon he couldn’t find work, and his best friends turned their backs on him, for fear of similar treatment. Having mouths to feed, Trumbo began writing under false names, and working for King Brothers Productions, an ultra-low budget grindhouse that were happy to have his talents, and could care less about his politics. With so many sub-par stories to crank out, Trumbo enlisted other writers to take on the scripts, and used his whole family to help run this “underground” agency.
Trumbo’s work on the Oscar-winning Roman Holiday went to another “cleared” writer, as did his Oscar for one of his low budget King scripts, The Brave One. It wasn’t until Kirk Douglas, producing his passion project, Spartacus, stood up to HUAC and fought to have Trumbo’s name credited, that the blacklist “began” to get officially challenged and broken. (In the film, crediting Trumbo becomes a machismo game of one-ups-manship between Douglas and director Otto Preminger, who was also offering to credit Trumbo for his epic, Exodus. )
That’s’ the story, and it’s ripe for a film that re-tells and shares the political climate and fear that permeated Hollywood and the rest of the country. Sadly, save for a few inspired moments and two performances, Trumbo feels like little more than a Lifetime MOW. Lead Cranston is an actor who has always needed an assured hand in the director’s chair (Breaking Bad is a good example of the heights he can soar when properly reined in, Godzilla and Trumbo the result of confused direction and a loose leash for Cranston’s carnivorous scene chewing), and here the director seems distracted enough that the performances run the gamut from subtle (Louis CK as an amalgamation of several real people; named here as fictional Arlen Hird) to symbolic (Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson) without any sense there is a breathing, thinking person behind the flat impersonation.
CK and John Goodman as the B-Movie “King” deliver the best performances, less earnest and more believable, with a spark of humanity buried in their cantankerousness.
Docu-dramas are almost always a slippery slope, especially when the plotting is based on events within our recent, remembered past. There are so many familiar touchstones that if the actors don’t perfectly embody the real person they’re portraying, or the trappings of the period are not nailed down with flawless accuracy, the “seams show through,” and the audience “checks out.” Sr. Editor Carley Johnson’s article on how 1970s cinema horribly failed in this genre is a perfect tangent for this idea.
Other times, the best renderings of non-fiction succeed when the filmmaker focuses on a specific small element, or a period in the character’s life, not trying to boil down an entire career that spans decades into a 2 hour running time. Scorsese has proven adept at focusing on neuroses more than pivotal “events.” Raging Bull was an examination of narcissism and self-loathing, The Aviator focused less on the many signposts of Howard Hughes’ bigger than life exploits, but instead on the mogul’s psychosis.
Director Jay Roach is sadly, not up to the task. His heart, and the cast and crews’, are in the right place, but their skill does not match the passion. And this is a shame, because Trumbo and other stories of political bullying and violation of civil rights, now more than ever, need to be told. It’s too bad the opportunity is wasted with cigarette holders, speech making, montages and TV Movie plotting.
For Your consideration reviews late year releases that are jockeying for Oscar nominations. Trumbo is in theaters nationwide, and has garnered several Golden Globe and SAG nominations.