Trumbo (2015)


Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, David James Elliott, Richard Portnow, John Getz, Madison Wolfe, James DuMont, J.D. Evermore, Allyson Guay. Directed by Jay Roach

Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter who was once the highest paid in Hollywood; he wrote classic movies and was considered one of the most intelligent writers in the business and racked up a couple of Oscars to boot. However, even with all that he is better known for one thing; being a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten.

Trumbo (Cranston) was one of the leading lefties in Tinseltown, espousing pro-Union an pro-Socialist causes. While he had joined the Communist party in 1943, he wasn’t what you’d call a hard-liner; he was always more of a Socialist than a Communist, but “socialist” was even worse at the time, as the Nazis stylized themselves as Socialists. When unions went out on strike, he would never ever cross a picket line.

But the times, they were a’changing. Soviet Russia was no longer a war ally and the Cold War was beginning in earnest. Washington was beginning to look at Communist elements in our midst and in Hollywood especially. The House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, took an interest in Trumbo because of his outspoken support for leftist causes and of course his membership in the Communist.Party also made him a target. The vitriol of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) who saw Trumbo as the embodiment of the enemy was leveled on Trumbo and she campaigned vigorously with the studio heads to get him fired, particularly Louis B. Mayer (Portnow) who is Trumbo’s boss. Once he is slapped with a contempt of Congress charge however, Mayer has the ammunition to let him go.

And thus begins the blacklist as Trumbo and nine other writers and directors who refuse to testify in front of HUAC are denied employment for any of the major studios. Trumbo scrapes ekes out a living by writing movies and then having non-blacklisted “front” for them; that is, putting his scripts under their name and taking a part of the compensation for it. It is in this way that he wrote Roman Holiday for which he received an Oscar, although it was Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) who received credit and picked up the Oscar (a statuette was delivered to Trumbo’s widow posthumously).

Trumbo also wrote B movies for the schlockmeister Frank King (Goodman) and his brother Hymie (Root) including The Brave One, written under a pseudonym and also an Oscar winner (this one he received while he was still alive). However, in order to keep up the sheer volume of work he needed in order to meet the demands of the King Brothers and of course keep his family fed and housed and clothed, he had to work an enormous amount of time, employing his family particularly daughter Chloe (Fanning) as a kind of personal assistant while his wife Cleo (Lane) held things together. The toll on his relationships within the family would become nearly intolerable. It also sundered friendships as his friend Arlen Hird (C.K.) disagreed strongly with Trumbo’s methods while actor Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) found that his own career had been torpedoed by allegations and was put in the horrible position of either naming friends to HUAC or risk seeing his career end in flames.

Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Oscar for the title role and I can tell you flat-out that the nomination was richly deserved – in fact I like his performance better than winner Leonardo di Caprio’s. He captures a lot of the real Dalton Trumbo’s mannerisms from the clipped speech, the hunched over posture and the witticisms along with the look; his trademark moustache and cigarette holder. He looks the part and quite frankly, he dominates the screen here.

The script captures the paranoia and despair of the time. The conversations between Trumbo and Arlen Hird are really the heart of the picture, setting up the dichotomy between capitalism and socialism (again, Trumbo wasn’t really a true communist) and questioning the motives of his crusade. A speech near the end of the film is an emotional moment that underlines the true cost of the blacklist and of other events like it.

I have to admit though that I was extremely disappointed by some of the historical inaccuracies here. While I don’t mind using Hird as a fictitious amalgam of real people, I do object to writer John McNamara characterizing a particular character here as naming names to HUAC when historically he did not; there were plenty of real people who did supply names to the witch hunters and there’s no need to drag a person’s name through the mud unnecessarily. A fictitious character could even have been created to play the same role but the way that this was done is something I really don’t approve of. I don’t mind fudging history for the sake of dramatic impact, but I do mind tarnishing the reputation of someone who didn’t earn it. While Hopper who is portrayed here as a crude, egocentric and vindictive woman – all things that contemporary accounts support – and her descendents can’t complain of the narrative here, the family of that one character has grounds to object. Sometimes dramatic license shouldn’t trump sensitivity to those close to the people in question.

The movie looks pretty damn good, with some sweet locations (New Orleans substituting for golden age Hollywood) and some wonderfully framed shots (Trumbo’s first film credit reflected in the lens of his glasses near the end of the film). The ensemble cast is terrific head to toe. There are also some powerful moments like the aforementioned speech near the end and the funeral for one of the main characters. There is emotional resonance here as we see the price that people paid for the zealotry of others.

That this sort of witch hunting goes on today isn’t lost on this reviewer. We may not necessarily be singling out communists for discrimination, but there are certainly other groups we have become hysterical about (*cough* Muslims *cough*) to the point of ridiculousness, but I’m sure they don’t find it very ridiculous. Trumbo works as a look at a dark part of our past but it also serves as a warning about our present; we are either true to our principles or we aren’t. You may say what you want about Dalton Trumbo whether you agree with his politics or not, but he stood up for what he believed in because he genuinely felt that to not do so was to betray his country. I’m not going to judge anyone on their stance because in the end they all believed that they were right and were doing right by America. Maybe that’s the excuse of some who are doing the same exact thing; that doesn’t mean however we shouldn’t stand up to those who operate out of fear, rather than displaying strength.

REASONS TO GO: Bryan Cranston nails it. Captures the paranoia of the times.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary factual errors.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair share of profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first non-comedy film to be directed by Roach.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2007)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden

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Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.