Saturday, January 9, 2016

Trumbo: How Fragile was the First Amendment?

     Trumbo received pretty good reviews, but little business.  Currently playing in the shoebox screen at The Esquire, it may not even be here when this review gets uploaded.  It’s a solid biographical drama about leading Hollywood golden age screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.  Written by John McNamara and directed by Jay Roach in a realistic, straightforward style, it cogently explores how the Hollywood Blacklist of the ‘40s and ‘50s was the highest profile manifestation of HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee).  

The Hollywood 10 Protest
     It was fueled by fear of the Russian Soviets, the potential for communist infiltration of American institutions, and the self-interest of a number of ambitious people to keep or increase their power at the expense of others’ careers and lives.  Hollywood moguls were intimidated by their fear of declining box office receipts and their desperation to keep their humble backgrounds discreet.  I felt a wide streak of anti-Semitism on the part of the U.S. Congressmen and those Americans including John Wayne and Hedda Hopper who defended American values by denying some Americans their right to free speech and the opportunity to work.  This was an era where bad publicity could kill literally a performer and her/his career.  Nowadays, most performers including politicians seem to have been crossbred with cockroaches: the only bad publicity is no publicity.  

The Real Trumbos vs. Trumbo's Trumbos
     Although the subject raises my ire, Dalton Trumbo himself maintained an almost Zen-like equanimity in the face of brutal chicanery and cowardice.  He received incredible support from his family, but could be tyrannical in running them as hard as the moguls ran their studio personnel.  The movie answers a question I’ve had for years about what people do to survive when they’ve been labeled as political dissidents and aren’t allowed to pursue their livelihoods.  Trumbo got around it in an extremely creative way by using other writers as fronts for A-list work and writing hack screenplays for the Poverty Row exploitation producers the King brothers.  The Kings displayed real guts in keeping blacklisted writers working.  It was tougher on actors, who couldn’t hide.  Many gave up when they couldn’t find work in the New York theatre.  
Bryan Cranston
     Bryan Cranston gives a powerful land technically accomplished performance as Trumbo.  However, when actual footage of Trumbo is shown during the end credits, it provides a contrast that subtly diminishes Cranston’s work.  Trumbo comes across as feisty and tough, whereas Cranston embodies a patrician, avuncular man.  I can see why the actual Trumbo was such a threat, but with Cranston it’s a little mystifying because he has such good manners.  Diane Lane 
Mirren as Hedda Hopper
and Helen Mirren do their usual exemplary work as, respectively, Trumbo’s quiet wife, who finally comes into her own defending their children and Hedda Hopper, who really was vicious, though the final image of her face cracks through the evil.  John Goodman and Stephen Root are like a middle-aged Katzenjammer Kids as the Kings and Louis C.K. provides heart as a composite of a number of communist screenwriters.  I wish they hadn’t had to depart from the real details when there was so much drama in that era and this subject.  Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s loyal but searching older daughter nails her two big scenes; her performance foretells wonders.
Elle Fanning

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