Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Trumbo *** (2015)

During the late 1940s the Red Scare divided Hollywood between those who refused to cooperate with HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) and those who "named names." When writer Dalton Trumbo and others refused to cooperate with HUAC they were blacklisted by Hollywood and betrayed by their friends.

Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston tells his story with finesse and astute attention to period detail, a fine historical film with parallels to the present.*

As the Second World War came to a conclusion in 1945, a fear of Soviet Union and gripped the political sphere.  A new generation of conservative and liberal politicians, such as JFK and Richard Nixon, campaigned as tough anti-communists set on stopping the spread of communism.  Nixon led the prosecution against former FDR aide Alger Hiss, a State Department official accussed of passing information to the Soviets.  In time, HUAC turned their attention to Hollywood for implanting subversive ideas into American culture.

Trumbo was part of the "Hollywood 10", a group of screenwriters blacklisted for their affiliation with the American Communist Party.  Trumbo's refusal to name names placed him in contempt and he served hard time in a Kentucky prison.  After serving his sentence, nearly bankrupt with legal fees, Trumbo had no other option but to write screenplays under pseudonyms, winning two Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One.  In 1960, with the release of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, the Blacklist ended and Trumbo finally received credit for his work.

Cranston's performance carries the film, playing the heroic writer refusing to compromise his art. Diane Lane is a bit too good to be true as Trumbo's wife who supported him and put up with his eccentricities.  First and foremost, Trumbo was a family man whpp pushed himself to the brink to support them.  He earned income by writing hack scripts for b-movie producer Frank King (John Goodman).  Goodman steals every scene he's in, a real joy to watch he and Cranston play off each other.

Hollywood legends are also portayed: the right wing John Wayne, a troubled Edward G. Robinson, comically Germanic Otto Preminger, and a saintly Kirk Douglas.  

While a great film remains to be made about the Hollywood blacklist, Trumbo does an excellent job of telling Trumbo's story.  There's warm humor, but beneath the jokes looms a serious theme of what can happen when a supposedly free society reverts to censorship. 

I find it interesting so many films in the past year are revisiting the Fifties from Bridge of Spies to Carol.  Today we tend to look back at the decade as a time of stability and yet nothing could be further from the truth.  Today there's a super confidence in technology, evidenced by the lionization of Steve Jobs, and yet everyone's more uncertain than ever about the future.  It's easy to compare time periods and I think it's a way to feel better about the current moment.  Or maybe because the decade is so distant we can now look at it with sharper vision.

* How Trumbo got an "R" rating is completely beyond me.  It's an entertaining historical film families with older children (11+) can enjoy together.  Was it all the smoking? Some drinking?  A little profanity?  It's even more baffling The Hateful Eight managed to get an "R" rating and not an NC-17.  The fact these two movies get an "R" speaks to the ridiculous MPAA system.

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