Hollywood loves telling stories about itself. But part of the problem with Jay Roach’s Trumbo (2015) is it is so slavishly devoted to the exoneration of its subject, screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) it cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees; namely, Trumbo’s innocence. John McNamara’s screenplay quickly devolves into a series of vignettes loosely strung together; a rather turgid textbook of the blacklist with myopic focus on one of the infamous ‘Hollywood Ten’ at the expense of minimizing the other nine lives directly impacted. I would like to impart on contemporary film makers that there is a fine line of distinction between telling a good story, telling a factual story, and telling one for which the impressions of life would best be served by forgoing a modicum of truth in service to ‘artistic license’. Trumbo is not a biopic of the man; McNamara’s script cobbling together the incidents of Trumbo’s flawed defiance during the Red Menace with a badly fumbled documentarian’s ambition, leaving Cranston’s perpetually whiskey-soaked and Benzadrine-popping curmudgeon preciously too little room to maneuver and/or deviate from espousing keynotes in the Communist manifesto or spitting pithy platitudes to unsettle members of Congress while ruffling the plucked plumage of arch nemesis, nationally syndicated gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Alas, this is a narrative misfire from which this movie never entirely recovers.
The other eminent weakness here is casting. Apart from Cranston’s rather histrionic central performance, at times veering dangerously close to becoming the clichéd clown of the piece - all mismanaged and badly bungled Marxist buffoonery – the rest of the stars who populate this rigidly structured antiquity are little more than set dressing. Looking for scapegoats and a clear-cut villain on which to hang its liberalized cause célèbre, Helen Mirren’s maven of mirth hurriedly federalizes into a doggedly toxic gargoyle; drunk on the measly mirage of her veiled threats, oozing from the ink of her poisoned pen; enough to accost MGM’s raja, L.B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) as a skirt-chasing ‘kike’. While no one can know for certain; this probably never happened, as Mayer was still a good three years away from being ousted from his untouchable seat of authority and could have – and distinctly would have – squashed the venomous Hopper like a bug. Hedda had guts. But Mayer had power…real power. And Hopper’s deliriously ribald bitch is the best of the lot in Trumbo. The other performances, from David James Elliott’s glowering and ultra-wooden caricature of John Wayne to Dean O'Gorman’s prepubescent and edgy, Kirk Douglas, are so uniformly bad, they bear mentioning only as examples of how ridiculous this sort of retrofitted ‘history’ can get when time and attention are not closely paid to truly resurrecting people as well as the period. There is a fine line between emulation and parody, particularly when embarking on the fool’s errand to recreate iconic legends of the silver screen, filling their immortal shoes with actors who neither tower in their own stature – as any actor of merit must – nor remotely resemble – physically, or in manner and deportment – the larger-than-life figures they are attempting to embody and rival.
In the back catalog of unique talents, vying for acceptability as their alter egos, I am immediately reminded of Sissy Spacek’s monumental incarnation of first lady of country music, Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980); kudos to Beverly D'Angelo’s haunting portrait as Patsy Cline from this same movie; or Paul Sorvino’s uncanny channeling of Henry Kissinger for Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and Albert Finney’s bone-chilling renaissance to Winston Churchill in 2002’s The Gathering Storm. In the shadow of these memorable homages is Michael Stuhlbarg’s Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo; a grotesquely sentimental, yet queerly unsympathetic, and utterly painful attempt by a minor talent to ape a legendary one. Has Struhlbarg ever seen Edward G. Robinson: not just at the movies but giving an interview?!? At least if he had physicality down pat, as say Robert Sacchi in The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980), then suspended plausibility could be applied in moments where bad acting creates an obvious disconnect between truth and verisimilitude. Struhlbarg is hardly alone in his flawed gentrification of a big name star. We have already mentioned David James Elliott and Dean O’Gorman as a pair of unprepossessing fakes; the former, in flashes, coming close to sounding like ‘Duke’ Wayne if still looking more like a robotic ‘Jag’ knock-off with too much starch in his britches; and O’Gorman, favoring the physical shading and limited acting range of a William Baldwin, wholly lacks the versatility and chutzpah of a dynamo like Kirk Douglas. Others in this fractured mélange do not fare any better. John Goodman’s Frank King has the physical girth, but lacks the bearing of King’s own summer stock version of the indie showman a la Michael Todd. Christian Berkel does a wicked lampoon of the oft’ maniacal, brilliant bastard/director, Otto Preminger (oh well, at least he has the accent). Rick Kelly is a ridiculous falsification of J.F.K. whom I kept expecting to suddenly depart from his cameo and shout out, ‘Vote Quimby’ (to any fan of The Simpsons this reference will immediately ring true).
Let us get honest here for just a moment. Thanks mostly to Production Designer, Mark Ricker and Costume Designer, Daniel Orlandi, Trumbo has the visual patina of late forties/early fifties Hollywood to recommend it. But this is not enough of an incentive to see the picture, nor is stock-piling its’ roster with middling actors who cannot hold a candle to their incandescent counterparts. Aside: I noticed no one deigned attempt a carbon copy of Audrey Hepburn, as example (how could anyone even begin to suggest Hepburn’sthe luminosity anyway?) – mercifully using inserts from the real ‘reel’ classic, Roman Holiday (1953) to fill in this gap. And wasting credible ones like Diane Lane, in a part any fledgling starlet could have (and should have) performed, with little more training than a horn-tooting seal at SeaWorld, is not the route to go either. So, if Hollywood today cannot even recapture the inviolate grandeur of its outwardly halcyon and rose-colored past – all studio-sanctioned banana oil, slickly packaged in highly controlled junkets and heavily concocted glam-bam magazine puff pieces, then perhaps it is high time the industry stopped trying to rewrite itself as anything more disingenuous.
John McNamara’s screenplay goes to great pains to canonize Dalton Trumbo as the patron saint of all minorities in danger of being swallowed whole by that ultra-conservatism that bred fear, loathing and panic during the Truman/McCarthy era; foregoing – or rather – minimizing the fact Trumbo was a fairly outspoken card-carrying member of the Communist Party; a real disconnect between the perceived Commi, threatening to topple American idealism with the stroke of his pen, and Trumbo’s own seemingly autonomous position within the corporate structure of Hollywood itself, as the highest paid personage in his chosen profession, equally presumed too big to fail, whatever his convictions. The real Dalton Trumbo would likely have approved of such exoneration, though arguably, not of the results achieved herein on his behalf. For although the movie resonates with Trumbo’s sharp-tongued introspection, the character, as conceived and amalgamated by McNamara and actor, Bryan Cranston, begins to fall apart under the strain of such platitudes and cheaply sentimentalized familial dreck – embodied in several key scenes scattered throughout the latter half of the picture, prominently featuring Elle Fanning as the writer’s daughter, Nikola who has her own mind, social causes to champion, and, increasingly resents her father’s myopic view of sly revenge that supersedes the family’s need to live from under such microscopic dissections. Yet, even as dime store melodrama, Trumbo disappoints; the snippets and sound bites stitched together in all too brief wan ghost-flowered impressions of the man, his purpose and his plight.
Trumbo’s elitism is at odds with his communist propaganda; McNamara’s screenplay attempting rather unsuccessfully a buddy/buddy relationship between Trumbo and fellow chain-smoking/cancer-ridden writer, Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.). Hird doesn’t much approve of Trumbo living high on the hog on a serenely pastoral farm. After all, how does this bode with Marx’s theorized collective sacrifice? Well, okay – it doesn’t. Trumbo as hypocrite? Not, entirely. Lest we forget Marx’s utopian ‘cure all’ for capitalism was not implemented as written and certainly never was to see the true light of day in Soviet Russia. Like far too many movies being made with a disingenuous political slant in America these days, America itself – or, at the very least, its’ government – and definitely its heroes of yore – are being viewed through the lens of even more insidiously misguided uber-liberal/communist empathies as the worst kind of enemy; Robert Taylor’s infamous HUAC testimony, “I think they should all be sent back to Russia” inserted yet again to prove a point – both of arrogance and nationalized propensity to infer ‘patriotism’ as the real boogie man. There are distinct cracks in this Liberty Bell, however, Trumbo, attempting to have his point of view heard – if not respected – confronting America’s Teflon-coated iconography of itself, then best embodied in the grandee John Wayne. Trumbo’s point is, in fact, exceptionally well placed, suggesting to Wayne, “If you’re going to talk about World War II as if you personally won it, let’s be clear where you were stationed - on a film set, shooting blanks, wearing makeup, and if you're going to hit me, I'd like to take off my glasses.”
Poor Trumbo. He has made rather a bad enemy of the vigorous maverick of the western/war movie; also, the treacherous Hedda Hopper who has no compunction about blackmailing MGM’s L.B. Mayer into letting Trumbo out of his contract or else made to endure the onslaught of idiotic accusations and innuendoes surely to tarnish, if not entirely dismantle, his empire. Trumbo is one of ten screenwriters singled out and subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), presided over with an iron fist by former New Jersey stockbroker cum politico, J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont), who later turns out to be guilty of corruption; the proverbial ‘pot’ calling ‘the kettle’ black. Trumbo encourages a small contingent of his contemporaries, including Hird to stand their ground. While they might be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify and ‘name names’, Trumbo is comforted in the knowledge the liberal majority on the Supreme Court, who abhor HUAC on principle alone, will never allow any such conviction to stand.
In the meantime, close personal friend, Edward G. Robinson, an ardent supporter of their cause, sells his Van Gogh Portrait of Père Tanguy to raise money for the Hollywood Ten’s legal defense fund. However, standing in the shadow of some very unsettling times; the conviction of the Rosenbergs, the ascendency of Joseph McCarthy, and, the Communist witch hunts cutting a swath through Hollywood’s artistic community with a scorched earth policy, Robinson breaks under pressure and the very real threat he will never work again. Given the choice, he fingers Trumbo as a communist. The wounds from this betrayal will never heal. But Trumbo has equally underestimated the strength of his own cunning; also what the unexpected death of Justice Wiley Rutledge will do to his chances of getting a fair appeal. Instead, Trumbo and his brethren go to prison; eleven months all told in Texarkana; Trumbo striking a rather tenuous partnership with convicted murderer, Virgil Brooks (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to ease his daily duties.
Newly released, Trumbo reasons time served behind bars equates to time served in the court of public opinion. Alas, old friends – or perhaps, merely fair-weather ones – like producer, Buddy Ross (Roger Bart) have turned their backs on him, seemingly for good; forcing Trumbo to sell his farm and move into a modest but comfortable bungalow in town. Even in the heart of suburbia he is scrutinized, now by a bigoted neighbor who leaves dead birds and debris in his backyard pool and spray paints ominous threats on his fence. Blacklisted and desperate to work, Trumbo writes Roman Holiday for Paramount, allowing good friend, Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) to take screen credit; Trumbo generously agreeing to split the money. The irony? The screenplay is honored with an Academy Award. But this is gossipy Hollywood at its zenith, and rumblings immediately stir that Hunter is a front for Trumbo; Hedda, quite unable to conclusively unearth the truth from Trumbo’s own whiskey-stained lips but thereafter, making it her passion to ruin him completely. Now, Trumbo goes to work for the King Brothers, Frank and Hymie (Stephen Root) – a C-grade production company, pumping out pulpy serials for the matinee crowd. Trumbo wisely deduces the King Corp. could do with a bit of classing up. And Frank, who openly admits he is only in the picture-making biz for ‘the pussy and the money instantly recognizes he can get quality prose dirt cheap to enhance his credibility in the business.
On the home front, the strain of churning out script after script begins to involve Trumbo’s marriage. His wife, Cleo and their teenage children all assume roles as his secret couriers, Trumbo demanding they put all of their lives on hold to perpetuate the ruse. Eldest daughter, Nikola accepts her part in this magic lantern farce, but steadily comes to resent her father’s myopic distortion of their home life. They’re a family, damn it. Not his employees. Trumbo has greater luck getting his alienated brethren in Hollywood to write even more scripts for the King Brothers; their finest achievement yet, The Brave One (1956) – a powerful tale of an unlikely friendship between a Spanish boy and a bull. The screenplay, very personal to Trumbo, wins him his second uncredited Academy Award – accepted on his behave by the mysterious Robert Rich – a pseudonym for a fellow who actually does not exist. Hedda is incensed. But Frank King will not be threatened into firing his most profitable writer. Amidst this hullabaloo, Arlen Hird dies of lung cancer, hopelessly destitute and leaving behind two young sons whom Trumbo refuses to take money from after their father’s wake.
Suspicion mounts and rumors swirl that Trumbo has become a one-man ghostwriting phenomena. Recognizing the transparency of his talent on the screen, actor, Kirk Douglas recruits Trumbo to adapt Spartacus (1960). For decades, the real Kirk Douglas has maintained he was responsible for defying the blacklist by demanding Dalton Trumbo’s name be given its proper screen credit for this movie. But Trumbo – the movie – would have us believe Douglas intended Trumbo to remain anonymous as before; pressured even by Hedda to ensure this would happen, yet as determined to outfox the industry after director, Otto Preminger, who hires Trumbo to translate Leon Uris’ sprawling novel into a screenplay for his movie version of Exodus. Playing both sides against the middle, Trumbo tells Preminger he is too busy writing Spartacus to partake – implying it will be the first movie to bear his name in the credits. Preminger asserts he would be willing to give Trumbo a screen credit too if he accepts the new assignment; Trumbo returning to Douglas with this ‘news’ and thus forcing Douglas to beat out Preminger’s offer by only a few months between the two theatrical releases that will both carry Trumbo’s name. With President Kennedy’s endorsement during a private screening, the blacklist is irreversibly shattered. Trumbo concludes with a foreshadowing of things to come. Hedda Hopper’s days in Hollywood are at an end. We flash ahead to 1970, Trumbo accepting accolades long overdue and speaking out against the victimization of the blacklist: a terrible chapter in American politics that ruined far too many lives, distorted reality and decimated a good many Hollywood careers.
This penultimate speech ought to have been a stirring, if sad-eyed invective; a dramatic summarization of the more informal torment inflicted upon creatives in the entertainment industry. After all, the blacklist was ultimately a discredit and a hypocrisy having very little to do about ending communism in the United States. Instead, Bryan Cranston’s inflections prove polemic than anemic in reassessing the weighty fallout that actually occurred. In Dalton Trumbo’s case, turning the camera lens on this historically ugly chapter in American politics as one man’s plight against its machinery has not humanized the saga at all, so much as transformed it into a scant and terribly unprepossessing TripTik through history, better evolved in author, Bruce Cook’s biography on which this movie is based. Cranston’s portrait of Trumbo is subtly nuanced, and arguably, the best thing in it. Yet, it is hampered by John McNamara’s interpretation of the source material; also, by director, Jay Roach’s inexcusable boredom, his complete inability to sustain any scene beyond a few loaded barbs, given short shrift before cutting away to the next scene and then the next, and the next, with a complete lack of finesse for building dramatic irony or even mounting tension. Either might have sustained and nourished his rather pedestrian sense of cinema storytelling. But at 124 minutes, Trumbo drags. To be sure, there is a more compelling narrative yet to be told within. But it is to be discovered elsewhere. I cannot stress enough my dismay with a good many contemporary film makers endeavoring to paint their own impressions over the past in broad brush strokes only to succumb to the stringency of remaining ‘true’ to history itself and thereafter sacrificing virtually every last vestige of artistic license, while introducing – intentionally or not – new biases into the mix. Tell the truth or tell us a fairy tale. But please – please – do not bastardize the precepts of either in your feeble attempts to homogenize these two irreconcilable worlds as one.
If remaining true to history is, in fact, Roach’s mantra, he would have done better to make a documentary about Trumbo rather than a reenactment. I have stated as much before, but reality is oft’ depressing and unprepossessing. Movies are, as some brilliant minds have long since pointed out, life - with all the dull parts cut out. Trumbo is life with a lot of the dull parts left in! It misses the mark by not being able to capture the luridness, immediacy and danger of a very real threat to American civil liberties that was, at least for a time, perpetuated by its own government in the name of democracy. That message is lost, buried, bungled or set aside in Trumbo; presumably to give us a more intimate portrait of one man’s blow back. It is therefore rather disheartening to discover the characters inhabiting Dalton Trumbo’s private life as cardboard cutouts; soulless stick-figures with little distinction or opportunity to shine and virtually nothing to make the audience care one way or the other about them. It doesn’t work, at all and Trumbo – the movie – falls flat: as a melodrama, an entertainment or even an overly simplified history lesson.
Trumbo on Blu-ray isn’t all that exciting either. Universal’s effort is competently rendered, but not much pop or punch to the image. Trumbo’s 1080p transfer is solid, if unremarkable. It also occasionally lacks crispness; the fine details in Jim Denault’s cinematography getting lost under a thin murky haze. Colors can be robust; Helen Mirren’s wildly amusing assortment of bonnets and chapeaus exhibiting some frothy forties and early fifties Kodachrome-esque tones. Skin tones adopt a ruddy California sun-kissed tint and contrast, overall, is good. Film grain also looks quite natural. The 5.1 DTS audio is adequate with crisp dialogue and a few nicely placed sound effects and music cues to sustain. Extras are limited to a junket produced to promote the movie; also, an original theatrical trailer covering a lot of the same ground. Honestly, I could have watched the trailer and been thoroughly satisfied. Bottom line: pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)