The flawed but fascinating Trumbo from Austin Powers director Jay Roach will be essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of cinema and 20th century anti-communist paranoia.
The film traces the life of famed Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) who scripted, among many films, Spartacus and academy award winners Roman Holiday and The Brave One. At the peak of his career Trumbo became a victim of the communist witch hunt frenzy launched by the House Un-American Activities Committee to expose among other suspects, supposed fifth columnists in Hollywood. The fear of communist infiltration into Hollywood was, according to the film, partly fuelled by the rantings of muckraking right-wing gossip columnist Hedder Hopper (Helen Mirren). At the height of the red panic, noted communists and sympathisers such as Trumbo were blacklisted and in some cases jailed. Banned from working and with evaporating finances, Trumbo and other writers, who became known as The Hollywood 10, began writing under false names, in some instances for low-budget exploitation film companies. Despite the ban, aggressive condemnation from a paranoid public and the humiliation of being forced to script rubbish movies, Trumbo held to his political beliefs.
One of the film’s great achievements is the way it interweaves convincing and moving personal dramas into the broader narrative of Trumbo’s ordeal. These include the Trumbo family’s domestic struggle with his exile from Hollywood and the mortifying site of Trumbo’s friends painfully capitulating in front of the house Un-American Activities Committee.
In addition to its fascinating and important story the film features a host of terrific performances. Cranston is witty, avuncular and impassioned as Trumbo while Dianne Lane evokes quiet dignity as his wife Cleo who acted as the steadying force in his life. Elle Fanning also impresses as Trumbo’s forthright daughter who clearly inherited his conscience and sense of justice. Among the supporting cast Helen Mirren is superbly waspy as Hedder Hopper, John Goodman outrageously entertaining as trashy film producer Frank King (from whom Trumbo was forced to seek work), Louis CK wryly amusing and sympathetic as Trumbo’s good friend and fellow writer Arlen Hird (a fictitious character based on various people) and Christian Berkel an absolute riot in a brief appearance as eccentric director Otto Preminger.
The film also parallels Trumbo’s battle against right wing oppression with other social justice movements of the time including desegregation and women’s rights. The latter is represented more through individual women’s actions and interestingly suggests that former actress Hopper’s venomous attacks on celebrities may (to some extent at least) have represented an attempt to strike back at the misogynist Hollywood establishment that shunned her as she aged.
Trumbo stumbles occasionally with some of the portrayals of famous Hollywood stars such as John Wayne (David James Elliot) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) a little unconvincing and unintentionally comical. Also, Roach adopts the prosaic over-lit telemovie visual style seen in other recent Hollywood biopics which occasionally makes the film feel a little flat.
For it’s remarkable, rousing and often funny depiction of defiance in the face of political madness, though, Trumbo is a must see film.
Nick’s rating: ****.
Director(s): Jay Roach.
Release date: 18thFebruary 2016.
Running time: 124 mins.
Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM. Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show
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