Wednesday, November 04, 2015

“Trumbo”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “Trumbo”, starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren


When a successful Hollywood screenwriter suffers a professional setback after suspicions of Communism abound, can he recover his career without losing his family?


During The Great Depression of the 1930’s – and as a result of the spread of Fascism that soon followed – many Americans wound up becoming members of The Communist Party.  When The United States partnered with Russia during World War II, this encouraged even more citizens to become Communists during the 1940’s.  However, within just a couple of years after the war’s end,  the U.S. government felt threatened by the spread of Communism, believing that the country would fall to the Communists if more and more people joined the party. 

Congress formed The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which investigated people suspected of being Communist sympathizers.  Among those targeted were members of the motion picture industry as movies were believed to be a tool that could easily influence a vast number of people.  One of those targeted was Dalton Trumbo (Cranston), a noted screenwriter and admitted Communist; upon being subpoenaed to appear before HUAC, he refused to answer questions and was held in contempt, resulting in him being sentenced to prison for a couple of years.   

When Trumbo is finally released, he finds his career in tatters; politically conservative forces in Hollywood led by influential newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) have pressured major movie studios to avoid hiring suspected Communists – known as The Hollywood 10 – which included Trumbo.  In order to support his wife (Diane Lane) and children, Trumbo took low-paying jobs to write scripts for a B-movie production company under an alias.  But when his secret is out, will Trumbo lose his only means of income or can he somehow overcome the fears about his political leanings? 


Fans of actor Bryan Cranston are understandably euphoric about any of his performances, whether it’s as Walter White in television’s “Breaking Bad”, his role as President Johnson on Broadway in “LBJ”, or even in a comic turn with his impersonation of Howard Stern’s media producer JD Harmeyer.  Playing real-life Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, however, will not be remembered as one of his best, as he presents the writer as more of a caricature than a fully-formed human being.  Cranston crosses the line between acting and over-acting with uncomfortable ease.

Neither Cranston nor any of the other members of this stellar cast are particularly helped by the movie’s screenplay, which is so trite it borders on cheesy with some rather cringe-worthy moments, including:  a frustrated writer ripping his paper out of the typewriter carriage and crumpling it before tossing it in the air; a verbal dunning notice from his lawyer on the steps of the courthouse immediately after emerging from the courtroom; Trumbo’s attempt at explaining Communism to his daughter.  Also worthy of a major eye roll or two are the impersonations of John Wayne, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas. 

Trumbo of course was a real person just as The Red Scare that he survived was a regrettable moment in the history of this country.  By contrast, the 1975 movie “The Front”, which starred Woody Allen, was something of a filmic roman à clef about that era’s McCarthyism that would be a considerably better recommendation if you really wanted to watch a movie about that period.  During the end credits of “Trumbo”, we see photographs and video clips of the eponymously-titled film’s protagonist and it suddenly occurs that maybe a documentary about him would’ve served his memory much better. 

Trumbo (2015) on IMDb

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