Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning and Louis C.K.
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: February 5th
After Vietnam, a new trend arose in American cinema, born from the growing state of disillusionment towards the Cold War that was intensifying at the turn of the decade. From 1976 onward, with the end of any war involving the US, a major film company would produce one motion picture that tackled the Hollywood Blacklist, or the general McCarthyism of the 1950’s.
These historical dramas would not appear during wartime, with 2005’s Goodnight and Good Luck the sole exception. They served to reflect the impact of a war on the home front, and often refused to hold back too much in delivering their criticism. In saying this however, it was and still is manufactured self-criticism, no different to the CIA’s covert funding of modernist artists such as Pollack, or Rothko. Essentially, this has been a consistent counterargument for almost a century. If the United States is accused of corruption, then they can respond by showing their tolerance of free expression in the arts. The artists say what they want, and it benefits one and all.
For example, in 1976, as the Vietnam War drew to its catastrophic climax, revealing the ugly side of the Cold War and America’s anti-Communist conquests, Martin Ritt, in collaboration Walter Bernstein, Zero Mostel, Lloyd Gough and Herschell Bernardi (all once on the list) emerged with The Front. This was a film that literally concluded with Woody Allen telling the House Un-American Activities Committee, “You can all go fuck yourselves”.
Were it pitched a few years earlier, then Columbia Pictures probably wouldn’t have signed on as the distributors. It scorned America’s claim to being a beacon of free thought, and emphasised the point that this was a nation that humiliated and destroyed its citizens through malicious means. Yet, when the blinds were pulled away following Watergate and ‘Nam, America needed to salvage its reputation as Land of the Free, and hence came this admission to one particular stain in its history.
Then in 1991, at the end the Gulf War, Irwin Winkler’s Guilty by Suspicion arrived, urging audiences to question whether the nation’s best interest and the interest of those in power are in fact at odds with one another. And today, we have Trumbo, which takes the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and uses it as a means to reflect on America in the 21st century, post-Iraq, and at a new crossroads.
A stylish period drama, directed by Jay Roach, starring Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Louis CK and John Goodman, the story looks at Trumbo’s struggle as part of the Hollywood 10, a group of writers persecuted for being part of, or affiliated with the Communist Party. In Roach’s revisiting of this period, he draws a plethora of parallels between the psychology of the Cold War and the War on Terror, from the vague justifications and fearmongering, to the Bush rhetoric of “you’re either with us, or with the terrorists”. The alignments might not be in-depth, but they are present.
Picking up in 1949, as Dalton and his comrades were summoned before HUAC, Trumbo explores the consequences of these show trials, and the 10’s attempt at persevering in an industry that refused to look them in the eye for over a decade. Using pseudonyms and other writers as a “front”, Trumbo devoted his every ounce of energy to writing, by the end becoming a one-man film industry. It was not a time when he could be picky, despite having once been heralded as America’s finest screen writer. He had to take just about anything to earn his keep, until eventually he came out with The Brave One (credited to Robert Reich), which earned him an Academy Award. Unable to accept the prize however and ironically being nominated alongside Jean Paul Sartre of all people, still his struggle caught the attention of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. The former offering him Spartacus, and the latter, Exodus, these two films served as a both a personal and political breakthrough, when the idealistic Douglas forced producers to give Trumbo full credit, hence, undermining the validity of the unconstitutional HUAC.
This collective standing up for Trumbo, and equally the fact that HUAC had forced his comrades to testify against him echo the Spartacus screenplay itself. This, Roach executes handsomely, playing off the idea that Trumbo’s art reflected his reality in a similar vein to Paul Schrader’s Mishima or David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, albeit on far greater a level of subtlety (and one I never thought Roach capable of achieving).
From start to finish, the story of Trumbo is rife with ideas that a director can have fun with, and thankfully, this fun does not lead to failure. Roach, the man behind Austin Powers, the Meet the Parents series and Dinner for Schmucks, is at the top of his game here, resembling a cross between Matthew Weiner and the Coen Brothers. However, the cast deserves equal credit for the compelling end results. Cranston, as usual, excels in his portrayal of the antagonised central figure, but he is accompanied by an equally on-form cast. In particular, Helen Mirren as the contemptible Hedda Hopper is one example of a powerful performance that both humanises an anti-Semitic gossip monger, while also knocking her from her golden pedestal.
The same can be said for David James Elliot, who plays John Wayne as the two-dimensional hero that people such as Roger Ebert and Michael Herr long condemned him for being. Wayne was a master of deceit, capable of conning his fans into believing him the battle-hardened veteran that he depicted onscreen in films such as The Green Berets. To the credit of both Elliot, who captures his insecurities, briefly, but excellently, and John McNamara’s script, which emphasises his artificiality, once again, this smashing of another Hollywood idol is a welcome sight.
From its revision of Hollywood iconography, to the rich dialogue that is teeming with quotable lines, Trumbo is a pleasing hail of bullets directed towards the ‘us versus them’ mentality that has frustrated American politics for too many years. By using a character, who cannot answer with a simple “yes” or “no”, but rather a long winded “it’s a little bit more complicated than that”, we are given a much needed cinematic hero who can adequately reflect the complexity of life today.