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Trumbo – Joint Review


Release Date: 25 November 2015 [USA]
Director: Jay Roach
Writer: John McNamara [Screenplay] - Bruce Cook [Novel]
Cast: Bryan Cranston - Diane Lane - Helen Mirren



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Posted February 5, 2016 by

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Trumbo – Joint Review

Larry’s Perspective:

First, a bias: I have a soft spot for films about filmmaking. Burden of Dreams, American Movie, Hearts of Darkness – I watch these movies with a big goofy grin on my face. OK, I wish I liked Ed Wood, White Hunter Black Heart and The Player a little more than I do, but what I really enjoy is when the enthusiasm for moviemaking is caught on camera.

Now an observation: there are very few good films about heroic screenwriters. You have heard the old joke about the ill-informed woman who wanted to make it in the movie business and slept with the writer. In Sunset Boulevard, the screenwriter ends up dead in the water. They suffer for their art because their work is rarely given the attention it deserves. The best writers either work with a trusted interpreter – Emeric Pressburger for Michael Powell – or, somewhat ill-advisedly become directors themselves, like Marshall Brickman, Paul Schrader and Robert Towne.

Trumbo is a heroic film about a heroic screenwriter, who was called un-American, was jailed for it, but worked his way back to respectability and acclaim, even winning two Oscars pseudonymously. That’s not supposed to happen, damn it.

Reader, I lapped it up. That said: there is a lot that’s made up.

Played by Bryan Cranston with thick glasses that never change their shape, Dalton Trumbo, a man with two last names, but what the hay, worked on the scripts of Kitty Foyle, We Who Are Young and A Guy Named Joe. He was, as they say, prolific. When we first see him on a movie set, he is feeding lines to Edward G. Robinson as the latter is being directed in a crime drama by Sam Wood. Wood, incidentally, is best known for his films with the Marx Brothers and the helmer of the afore-mentioned Kitty Foyle.

The film being shot doesn’t exist. John McNamara’s screenplay, which isn’t Oscar nominated but ought to have been for sheer compelling chutzpah, presents made-up stuff to simplify things, get to the point, move the story along.

Trumbo is shown to stand up for set makers against low wage contracts and no strikes. I have no idea if he did this for real, though he was asked to act as an observer for the Conference of Studio Unions, who represented technicians and craftspeople and was in a bitter dispute with the studios. Those who didn’t join the CSU crossed the picket lines as members of the International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees (IATSE), which had links to organised crime. When you note these facts, you can’t blame McNamara for cutting out IATSE and making it simple.

Trumbo wasn’t friends with Edward G. Robinson, rather John Garfield. But the fact is that Robinson, star of Double Indemnity did testify for the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Robinson did, however, have an art collection, which included works by Cézanne, Chagall, Degas, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and more (do check out the type-written MOMA 1953 press release).

I guess you could say that little in Trumbo is strictly true, though Trumbo did write both Roman Holiday and The Brave One and got best screenplay Academy Awards for both, neither of which he could collect as he wasn’t allowed to work as a screenwriter.

It might not be strictly true – McNamara might not name all the Hollywood Ten, who went to jail for contempt of court, citing the First Amendment. They are, for reasons of accuracy: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk (the director of Farewell My Lovely), Ring Lardner Jr (who later wrote M*A*S*H*), John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo. You might ask yourself which of these is ‘Arlen Hird’ (Louis C K), the screenwriter who has cancer and whose life was shortened by the blacklist? Answer: he’s a composite. So we shouldn’t cry for him, right?

As for the eleventh member of ‘the Hollywood Ten’, playwright Bertolt Brecht, he is nowhere to be found. He, of course, did not go to jail, but fled America.

The fact is that even today, the blacklist is a divisive subject. I remember when Martin Scorsese handed Elia Kazan his honorary Oscar in 1999, Kazan was booed. There was a lot of hurt.

Why is the film a lot of fun? Mainly because Trumbo stands up to John Wayne, something we would all like to do. He loves his family, admits he is a rich guy who doesn’t want to go to prison and doesn’t intend to, but never admits he was a member of the Communist Party. We like it that he meets a film producer in prison who cold-shouldered him. ‘The difference between us – you committed a crime.’ He works alongside a gruff prisoner (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje) who asks for no b.s. and raises a daughter (Elle Fanning) who fights against segregation.

Fact: Trumbo’s first movie for Otto Preminger was not Exodus as is described here; he worked on The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell in 1955, before Spartacus.

Fact: Trumbo did not work for the King Brothers, as played by John Goodman and Stephen Root – the former has a great moment with a baseball bat. He was hired by a number of producers and worked on (pseudonymously) the screenplay for the classic Gun Crazy – his ‘front’ was Millard Kaufman, another guy with two surnames.

Jay Roach, who directed those alternative 1960s movies, the Austin Powers movies as well as Meet the Parents has oddly never made a more entertaining film than Trumbo. The moral high ground inspires him to draw a salty performance from Helen Mirren as the morally repugnant Hedda Hopper, who in the movie led the charge against the Hollywood Ten. There is a wonderful moment when the world changes for Hedda; the camera creeps around Mirren’s face as she visibly ages.

Where Trumbo scores is reminding us that America often ends up on the wrong side of history when it acts out of fear, demonizing the American branch of the Communist Party, who were no Soviet lackeys and were pro-working person, not anti-American. Roach and McNamara bring in segregation and contemporary resonances, reminding us that the demonizing of Muslims (again out of fear) by one D Trump cannot be right.

Cranston’s performance is mannered and reminds one of Salvador Dali crossed with John Huston, but with sanctimonious wit. It is a terrific portrait of resolve, so different from Leonardo Di Caprio being mauled by a bear in The Revenant that the two actors seem barely practising the same art form. He is ably supported by Diane Lane as Dalton’s wife Cleo, who doesn’t age a bit, but takes out a punch bag in one wonderful scene where her husband, drinking, pill-popping and working in the bath in all hours, drives her to distraction.

Don’t confuse Trumbo with the truth and you’ll have a good time. Movies are often at their best when they offer a heightened version of reality – heck, look at Birdman. Trumbo does exactly that.

Written by:

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 15.56.21

Larry Oliver
Full Contributor


Sedef’s Perspective:

Welcome to the latest in a long line of Hollywood traditions – films about its own history. And this time, it is about a particularly difficult period in Hollywood history… As we all know, even though we might like to think that art exists in a sphere by itself, away from the uglier sides of life – nothing can be further than the truth. This is the truest of Hollywood – in some senses the capital of cinema –and ultimately a one of the greatest “movie business” centers in the world. If talent is vital for artistic creation, keeping in step with the business world – and its need for keeping up appearances – can make the difference between making a living and ultimately… Well, looking for another way of making a living.

Meet Dalton Trumbo (Brian Cranston). In 1947 he is one of the best known and most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. He lives with his beloved wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and their three children in a beautiful ranch with horses and a pool. In fact, he pretty much has it all. That is, until the realities of living in Cold War period America begin to hit home. Trumbo is well known for his membership to the Communist party, his vociferous support of workers’ rights and perhaps most importantly an absolute refusal to bow to authority. It is the combination of these factors that bring down the wrath of the anti-communist forces in Hollywood down on the heads of him and his friends. Before he knows it, Trumbo and his friends (later known as the Hollywood 10) have landed themselves on the infamous blacklist and have made some very powerful enemies (such as the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Hellen Mirren) and John Wayne) who are hell bent on ensuring they stay there for a good long time. This should have meant Trumbo never worked again. Rather annoyingly for his enemies however, Trumbo went on to win two Academy awards over the next couple of decades he spent on the blacklist. This film is the story of how he managed that…

The film is an interesting take on the story of the underdog taking on the system. This was an era where the communist witch hunts were taking place, ruining many lives. Careers irretrievably lost, families ruined and pulled apart, illness, suicides… Trumbo was set to lose it all. He had some of the strongest names in the business – quite apart from the Congress and the general public – against him, all determined he would never work again. Trumbo is, in effect, the classic story of one man taking on the system. He mobilizes the masses (i.e. his friends, other left wing writers, directors and actors), cheats the system, gets what is his right. It is also the triumph of art over politics. The artist ultimately triumphs over the pen pushers who just don’t get it and the petty gossips like Hedda Hopper outsmarting them all. Especially since Trumbo is a screenwriter – not exactly the most glamourous job in Hollywood – it almost feels like an everyman beating the immortals. This is, by and large, what gives the film its appeal.

Only thing is of course Trumbo wasn’t exactly an everyman. He started the journey with a lot of money in his pocket which always helps. True it got so bad that the family has to sell their ranch and move into town but the point is there was a ranch to sell in the first place. And Trumbo, both unshakable in his conviction and undeniable in his talent as a screenwriter is definitely not a very good example of an everyman. You might think that this would be a thorn in the films side but it actually isn’t. The film circumvents this one by openly discussing it. All the characters in the film, both Trumbo and other players on both sides of the argument, are put in the situation where they must choose between their ideals and their comfortable lives – or indeed, their livelihoods. A lot of his friends ask our hero how much his seemingly pure motives are influenced by his will to get his prestige and comfortable life back – and I doubt Trumbo could have put his hand on his heart and given you an honest percentage. On top of everything else, Trumbo is – while admirable in a lot of ways – quite often rather hard to be around and is neither the best of friends nor the best of husbands and fathers. In short, even though we are looking at a typical Hollywood tale starring a hero that could well have been perceived as quite supernatural but the film does not shy away from exposing Trumbo as actually completely human. Cranston is absolutely stellar and a very gritty, real character among a whole range of Hollywood faces that are often played in a way that was deeply contrasting with Trumbo. It is undoubtedly what makes the film so easy to watch.

But more than anything else, in these times where the real motives, convictions and beliefs are once again under scrutiny due to a completely different set of circumstances, Trumbo is a reminder of how unfair witch hunts and attacking those who do not think the way we do purely out of ignorance and prejudice can be. Trumbo is definitely both quality entertainment and food for thought – a must watch of the season.

Written by:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 18.55.20

Sedef Hekimgil
Essie Speaks
Full Contributor


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