Didn’t you have that moment in history class where you were astounded that humanity collectively allowed something blatantly horrific to happen? The holocaust. Slavery. The Salem witch trials.
Or that there were times where we turned our backs and willfully denied the humanity of others? Women’s right to vote. Segregation through the Southland. Marriage equality.
Or that we found wartime justification in the mass slaughter of our fellow beings? Atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hirsoshima. The conflict in Vietnam. Rwandan genocide.
And let’s not forget ongoing issues like the cruelly monolithic factory farming that is driving the climate itself to hourly nervous breakdowns.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Xenophobia runs amok. Religious fanaticism of all stripes rules the day. A paralyzing fear of “the other” (name a category, any category) cripples us. Outright, politicized hatred wrapped in disingenuous, fear-mongering appeals to the gun-loving, Bible-thumping walking dead to fight for their rapidly “eroding” rights. I’ll say it again: one’s loss of cultural hegemony is not an incursion. It’s a re-balancing.
For me, one of the darkest chapters in American history has always been the bureaucratic bullying perpetrated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in overreaction to the so-called “Red Scare” against Communism in the Eisenhower years. This period always troubled me because it seemed to be the most likely to be repeated. We can argue the nobility of governmental intention then, but the march into fearful groupthink was truly “un-American” and continues to be.
Yet, here we are again.
“Are you a good American and not a Communist?” has now become “Are you a good patriot and do you wear a flag on your lapel?” Back then, anyone who had ever had any affiliation or any interest in socialism or Communism was seen as a potential threat to the “Homeland.” Sound familiar? Sometimes, I wonder if Sarah Palin or Rupert Murdoch scribbled into a Mad Libs page on “the ideal American” the words Christian, reactionary, culturally illiterate, gun-loving, white, married with too many children, hunting, climate change denying martyr – and that, if we’re not careful, the wrong people in power will make sure that those of us not fitting into such a narrow paradigm will be marginalized into oblivion.
I used to think we’d learned from the cruel missteps of something like the 50s “blacklist” which, under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee, destroyed the careers and lives of many actors, writers, directors, and other creative types just because they were believed to think differently than the imposed norm. These days, I’m not so sure.
I was hopeful, then, that Trumbo, the new biopic of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) in the title role, would be a tonic for this troubled age, the kind of film that uses its historical frame to challenge our present-day complacency. It isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a perfectly fine, workmanlike piece of biographical fluff. It’s a bit troubling, maybe ironic, though, that a film about a sparklingly incisive screenwriter has such a lousy, predictable screenplay, including the now-standard “I’m a famous person who lived a trouble life and I get to end the film treatment of said existence by making a cliché-laded speech and getting an award” denouement (see: A Beautiful Mind, The Theory of Everything).
Cranston, who, to me, is overrated and rather uneven as an actor (sorry, not a Breaking Bad fan), does a credible job and is one of the film’s bright spots. Depicting the act of writing which, at best, is an task of isolation and at worst one of alienation, is not something that translates readily to the beat-driven narrative which film requires. How do you open up someone’s mind with its insecurities and egomania, triumphs and failures, engaged in the solitary exercise of communing with a blank piece of paper and make it interesting? Fortunately, Trumbo had his share of eccentricities – writing from the bathtub to ease an aching back; a mustache that gave Salvador Dali a run for his money; owlish horn-rimmed glasses; chain-smoking from a jeweled cigarette holder – allowing Cranston to play up the actorly tics on his way to finding Trumbo’s spiky inner life.
The film falls on the horns of its own noble intentions, however, depicting a world where Trumbo is the liberal white knight tilting at the windmills of an increasingly conservative Hollywood establishment as represented with fang-gleaming glee by Hedda Hopper (an impishly fun Helen Mirren) and lumbering thuggishness by John Wayne (J.A.G.’s David James Elliott, miscast but weirdly endearing – Elliott doesn’t look a d*mn thing like Wayne, but he gets the silly voice right … sort of … and gives the role a kind of Frankenstein’s monster likability). The performers are having a lark, and, like a zippy Halloween masquerade, they are fun to watch, until you think about the proceedings a bit more than you should. The simplicity with which director Jay Roach (Recount, Game Change, Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, Mystery Alaska) approaches this complex philosophical conflict at the tinny heart of Hollywood commerce is practically chiaroscuro and altogether disappointing. As ridiculous as Hedda Hopper was and as destructive as her caustic PR-meddling may have been, I’m pretty sure she had a bit more nuance than Elvira Gulch.
It’s a shame that the direction and script are so shallow, never rising above TV-movie grade, because the supporting cast offers some great character turns. Louis CK with his “find a cloud for every silver lining” dyspepsia gives some much-needed gravity to the proceedings. He has far too little screen time as the perfect deflation for Trumbo’s hyperbole. The film lazily assumes its audience enters with a common understanding of how horrific the blacklist and its underlying philosophy was (is) and fails to capture the sticky claustrophobia that those victimized by it likely felt. Fortunately, CK with his defeated bearing and hopeful hopelessness grounds the proceedings by establishing the emotional stakes at play.
John Goodman plays, well, the same part he’s played his whole career as a blustering, heart-of-gold purveyor of cinematic filth. And that’s just fine. He can get away with it. He has a unique gift for simultaneously being a pixie and a bag of cement. Alan Tudyk is fine, all wide-eyed, button-downed anxiety as a fellow screenwriter, to whom Trumbo gives the credit for the Oscar-winning Roman Holiday when Trumbo has been all but written-off. Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s daughter offers a nice bit of spark to her father’s flinty charm – their few exchanges depict a rich familial dynamic that isn’t really present in the script.
This brings us to Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s long-suffering wife Cleo. Said simply, it’s likely the worst performance I’ve seen her give. I don’t know if it’s the screenplay or Lane or both, but, to steal a quip from my mom who observed, “It’s like Lane prepared for the role by watching too many episodes of The Donna Reed Show.” There is a lot of squinting and posturing and mincing, a bit of juggling (literally!), some boxing (not kidding!), and … well … that’s about it. I suspect there was a much more contentious dynamic between Cleo and her husband, whose admirable ethics caused years of economic and social strife for his entire family, as he engineered ways to undermine the stultifying effects of the Hollywood blacklist. Sadly, we just don’t get to see any of it. The film would have been stronger if we had. And Lane would have had something to play, other than juggling glassware (literally!).
According to the film, Trumbo’s Oscar wins for Roman Holiday (uncredited) and for the beautiful ode to compassion (and animal rights) The Brave One lit a spark under Hollywood to push back and challenge the blacklist’s economic stranglehold. Additionally, Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman who looks like Douglas if you squint and sounds like Douglas if you’re deaf) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel, playing the famed director as if he were auditioning for the villain role in Dr. No) were among the few Hollywood establishment players to buck the system and give Trumbo a chance, thumbing their noses at the suffocating evil of the Washington witch hunters.
I wish this film had been better. I wish we were left with a clearer understanding of what motivated all of the players, both the “good” and the “bad” (whatever those terms even mean). I wish I knew what “messages” were so troubling in the screenplays of the time. I wish I knew why people with one kind of power (political) were so threatened by the free speech of those with another kind of power (celebrity) that they were compelled to shred the very Constitution they claimed they would die on their swords to defend. Trumbo doesn’t help us with these answers. I wish it did. We need these answers, now more than ever.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.