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Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Current Cinema - Supercinephile Barrie Pattison discusses what's Right and wrong about Trumbo

TRUMBO, Directed by Jay Roach. With Bryan Cranston (Dalton Trumbo), Diane Lane (Mrs Trumbo), Helen Mirren (Hedda Hopper), John Goodman (Frank King). USA, 2015, 115 minutes)

I find it hard to believe that there’s a Hollywood feature movie about Dalton Trumbo playing ten minutes walk up the road.

When I was young we didn’t have proper role models like O.J. Simpson, Lance Armstrong or Oscar Pistorius. I had to settle for film makers. Now curiously my heroes are coming back as characters in movies - John Houseman and George Coulouris in Orson Welles & Me (Richard Linklater, USA, 2008), Orry George Kelly in Women He’s Undressed (Gillian Armstong, Australia, 2015) and Sam Wood (blink and you’ll miss him) in Trumbo. Actually Sam Wood was a more significant figure and a more interesting story than Dalton Trumbo, who scripted Kitty Foyle (USA, 1939) for him, but getting into that would require a talent more substantial than Jay Roach the director of Meet the Parents (USA, 2000) and the Austin Powers movies. That’s full bore Sidney Lumet material.

Trumbo is disturbing for the things it gets wrong. Dalton Trumbo was working for the
King Brothers long before Roman Holiday (William Wyler, USA, 1953). It would be nice to think that Frank King did see off the man from the IATSE by waving a baseball bat.  The Trumbos didn’t retreat to suburbia with a fink neighbor. They settled in Mexico City. The most off-putting material is in the depiction of Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg
excellent again) who has been composited with people like Sterling Hayden and Lee J.
Cobb to the historical figure’s discredit, though Stuhlbarg does get the film’s best line,
offering to sell another painting to fund them bribing the jury.

People like Stanley Kramer and Edward Lewis miss out any nod for their work in
breaking the Hollywood blacklist. It is nice to see Cranston’s Trumbo playing the giant
egos of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger off against one another though. 

More unsettling is the film’s handling of Bryan Cranston’s Dalton Trumbo himself.
Inexplicably they omit any reference to “Johnny Got His Gun”, Trumbo’s pacifist
signature work as book, play and finally the self directed 1971 movie which all the
friends I shipped off to watch, in its one week, one theater London release, wanted to go
back and see again. That comes with the film’s side step on the acceptance and rejection
of Moscow directives, which had the real Dalton Trumbo suppressing that text at one

They do have Trumbo’s swimming pool socialist coming up against the reality of
Adewale Akinnioye Akbaje’s imprisoned black murderer. However the film’s one fully
shaded character is Helen Mirren as the odious Hedda Hopper. Her authoritative defiance
and decline is an arc that balances Trumbo’s triumph in a way that is more striking than
what is going on around it. I wonder whether the actress had any input into the scripting.

The film making is undistinguished, with just the odd flourish like Diane Lane meeting
Cranston at night on his release from the Kentucky prison. Technically the integration of
new footage into HUAC news coverage or Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1960) is impeccable. Performances are good enough and occasionally, as with Louis C.K., Mirren and Stuhlbarg, better than that.

Cranston’s reconciliation with Elle Fanning is genuinely touching and his watching TV
surrounded by the family who have suffered with him, when his name is read out at the
Oscars is worth a cheer.  Roach does ultimately sell his argument that the Red Scares of the fifties were a battle between freedom of expression and right wing bigots.

There are however so many other narratives that beg to be explored here - the relation
between ideology and serious (or indeed frivolous) art is one. How come films like Gun
(Joseph H Lewis, USA, 1950), The Gangster  (Gordon Wiles, USA, 1947) and Terror in a Texas Town (Joseph H Lewis, USA, 1958) which Dalton Trumbo wrote for cheap
jack production are so much better than multi million dollar spectaculars like A Guy Named
(Victor Fleming, USA, 1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (Mervyn Le Roy, USA, 1944) made from his scripts? I don’t leave Sidney Lumet’s 
films feeling this frustration.

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