Trumbo – a review

 

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Bryan Cranston – a good impression of Noel Coward

I am Trumbo. No, I am Trumbo. No, I’m Trumbo!

Yes, the persecuted Dalton Trumbo wrote Spartacus, but he never got the credit or the Oscar until many years after the event. Trumbo was a blacklisted writer. And somewhere in the movie Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) gets to repeat the phrase as if he owned it.

A warning: every character is a chain smoker – those hoping to cut smoking be advised.

Until I took up the lonely practice of writing scripts, the only Dalton I knew was the one making a good living in Midlothian out of scrap metal. As soon as I was aware of Hollywood writers, Trumbo’s name jumped to the fore. He was the highest paid in Tinsel Town. And in time he won three Oscars, The Brave One, Roman Holiday, and Spartacus, plus four nominations. All Oscars were awarded in the name of pseudonyms. Trumbo was unable to show his face at a bar, low-end of town, let alone at an Academy Award event.

Trumbo is a fairly accurate depiction of America’s cold war years as they affected Hollywood writers, actors, composers, and directors. It covers the main years of Trumbo’s career, and the infamous McCarthy Un-American Activities Committee, that together with Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, (a sour one-note Helen Mirren) had the power to put a person out of house and home by the mere mention of their name.

In Britain the equivalent of the Committee, (it didn’t finish its nasty work until 1976) are the tabloid newspapers and the Telegraph when down and dirty; the equivalent of Hopper would be one of those screechy media-obsessed airhead blondes who make a living insulting minorities and socialists and the SNP by spouting excrement, and justify their hate speech by saying, “I say what I mean,” or some such self-righteous garbage.

Trumbo had written an article explaining how the Russians had to be fearful of the west as we marshalled our armies and rockets all around its border, and perhaps we should be pull back. Not long afterwards he got the knock on the door from two FBI agents. “Their interest lay not in my article or letters but in me.”

Together with many other creative individuals, he joined the Communist party to help fight for greater conditions for workers. It wasn’t long before he was hauled up before the Un-American Committee – “Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the communist Party?” He refused to testify or name names. He was jailed. He watched movie stars he had helped make famous finger their friends, Edward G. Robinson one, Humphry Bogart another, tough guys on screen, complete shits off screen.

As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since. And on the basis of guilt or innocence, I could never really complain very much. That this was a crime or misdemeanour was the complaint, my complaint.”

With nine others, he was convicted on the criminal charge of contempt of Congress and in 1950 served 11 months in prison. After this, he was forced to scratch a living under false names, and the industry found itself in the ridiculous situation of presenting his screenwriting Oscars to “front” writers.

Begin with a clean sheet

Trumbo was famous for writing in the bath, typewriter propped up on the soap shelf in front of him, cigarette holder gripped in the side of his mouth. He said he got his best ideas locked in the bathroom, uninterrupted. In fact, friends erected a statue to his honour in front of the Avalon Theatre depicting him working in his bathtub.

It was Kirk Douglas who was credited for breaking the blacklist when he insisted Trumbo’s name was on the movie posters of Spartacus, and the film itself, against the advice of the studio. At least, that’s what Douglas claims in his autobiography, although this films credits Otto Preminger with that bravery.

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Well, if it gets the work done…

 Bryan Cranston parades through Trumbo, a wiki-pageant of shorthand history, as if he’s gunning for an Oscar, an indeed, he’s been nominated. It’s a good impersonation, and it carries the film, but there are moments it seems surface, like Ron Moody playing Fagin. He can claim, however, to have thrown off his Breaking Bad persona.

Cranston’s Trumbo is all epigrammatic, witty rejoinders, and off-the-cuff bon mots. Now and then he speaks in a normal domestic language, usually when crushed by his long-suffering family, or a close friend. We don’t get to see Cranston’s Trumbo do much thinking beyond the squint of his eyes, which is a loss in a movie about a writer.

The intimate moments are closeted in witticisms too. His daughter, riding on a spotted horse, asks, “Dad, are you a Communist?”; in his response he gets all pompous and preachy, asking her if she’d ever share her lunch with a hungry classmate -Trumbo could be Gregory Peck’s Atticus teaching Scout about justice.

Can the screenplay match the screenplays?

I can see the temptation: how do you write a great screenplay about a great screenplay writer without peppering every line with his best words and phrases? His every line is so carefully composed – and so fussily enunciated – that you wonder if he ever said anything plain ordinary. Witness fellow writer Arlen Hird complain, the rare character who behaves as if he doesn’t know he’s in a movie about a great Hollywood writer, “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiselled on a rock?”

I might be the only person to feel speaking every line as if a biographer was standing by pen and paper at the ready makes everything sound the same – the Boswell-Johnson syndrome. Where is the modulation? Where are the quiet, reflective moments of doubt? However, that doesn’t stop the film being very enjoyable, and a history lesson. Quite a few folk around me in the cinema laughed out loud – in the places they should laugh.

A comedy that’s not

Director Jay Roach has specialized in the loudest and lowest-aiming, star-driven comedies — the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies — and here, as in those, everything seems subordinate to the whims of his lead actors.

The film incorporates original news footage of the day but could have done with a lot more to illustrate the fear and fate of so many Americans destroyed by  the state, some of whom took their lives. You have to sit tight at the end credits to see the real Trumbo speak, and to do so with great honesty and pathos.

Too much history passes in a vague rush: We get to see one scene of Trumbo agitating for better wages and conditions for a group of workers and then its over; Trumbo’s trial and conviction are over in minutes as do his years in jail which are marked by the film’s worst scenes. Trumbo getting the evil eye from a belligerent black inmate (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who appears to be illiterate, but Roach and screenwriter John McNamara immediately transplant one black stereotype with another. Turns out the big fella’s a ferocious bruiser who can read and compose tough-guy speeches. But the misdirect is lost on us, the scene too peremptory.

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John Goodman in one of the best scenes in the film

That’s preceded by one of the few moments where Cranston proves compelling. Trumbo stands stripped before a prison guard who forces him to turn around and reveal every nook and cranny. We feel his humiliation. Without a moustache or glasses to hide behind, silent, Cranston looks like a man caught in a nightmare.

You have to accept all the unknown actors doing impressions of famous movie actors are as close as we will get without expensive computerisation, and for the most part that device works, but the mental exercise in itself is distracting.

Diane Lane does a fine job playing Trumbo’s loyal wife, but oh dear, how often have we seen good actors reduced to the role of the long-suffering muse? They never have a backstory of their own. They are forever typecast as the archetypical hausfrau.

The one role that works brilliantly is John Goodman as Frank King, skinflint producer of cheapo B flicks, a robust comic figure who gets all the best lines and speaks them as a human being might. You keep wishing there were more scenes between King and Trumbo. King and his brother Hymie (Stephen Root) employ blacklisted writers not out of a desire to right injustice but because they want cheap scripts. “Let me make this clear. I’m doing this for the money and the pussy. And it comes at me from all directions. Now fuck off!”

For the uninitiated in the USA’s blackest years, you can’t do worse than see Trumbo, but a good book on the subject will inform you better. Or read anything written by Christopher Trumbo who was an expert on his dad’s darkest days, and wrote a stage play about it, and shot a documentary too.

  • Stars: Three and a half
  • Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, John Goodman
  • Director: Jay Roach
  • Writer: John McNamara
  • Duration: 2 hrs 4 mins
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