Trumbo -Take a Look at the Man and the Movie

Dalton Trumbo spent ten months from June 1950-April 1951 in the Kentucky Federal Correctional Institute, far from his family as most in such facilities still are. Convicted for Contempt of Congress, in the new film version of the multiple Oscar winners life, he meets a former HOUAC Committee member who grilled him on the stand,now  serving time for corruption. As they mop the floors, in a moment arranged by the God of Cinema if it Actually Happened, Trumbo points out that unlike the other man reduced to similar circumstances, he did not commit any actual crime. The smartest man in any room, he managed to salvage his career by subverting and thwarting those aligned against him and other blacklisted writers, perceived to be disloyal for having joined the Communist party, no matter what principles they were espousing.

Trumbo testified early on in proceedings held to ferret out traitors that lasted from 1947 well into the 1970’s. He was the first of the so called Hollywood Ten, certainly the most successful and highest paid screenplay writer of his time. Having penned such patriotic Fodder as A Guy Named Joe, and 30 Seconds over Tokyo, I am personally bewildered why  he still causes rabid right wingers to foam at the mouth denouncing him, as has been evident in several articles written around this release. For a film aficionado, such as myself, all that matters is that he created Magic. But if the actual point of the hearings was to eradicate those implanting Un American ideals, where is the evidence of such subtle efforts at persuasion?  If anything, it’s quite the opposite since his screenplays embody the hopes, dreams, and strivings of average American men and women.

Kitty Folyle released in 1940, his first big hit, starred Ginger Rogers as a working-class woman  drawn into snobbery and class elitism when she dares to date the scion of a family above her economically. However it is far from a veiled advertisement for communism, as American romances have always featured such social climbing. This man Loved the Movies, and had a personal depth of character, and understanding  of humanity at its finest, that resulted in richly nuanced stories that still touch viewers deeply. Even when forced into using  pseudonyms as he did for Roman Holiday, he won awards and enchanted audiences. Many of the movies he wrote sill hold us as Classics. Why is there so little emphasis on his actual body of work, as opposed to his personal life, when seeking to answer whether he embraced Stalinist values?  Whatever his  beliefs or allegiances may have been, they did not seep into the scripts, except as ringing endorsements for Freedom of personal expression and Integrity, such as that expressed in Spartacus. Once he got the right to use his name back, courtesy of Kirk Douglas-well played here by Kiwi Dean O’Gorman- He seems to have specialized in distilling Potboilers like  Exodus into highly cinematic Smash hits. The scene where Otto Preminger pulls up to his suburban home with that “piece of shit book” needing his services is a highlight, especially because German actor Christian Berkel nails it, and once again we can laugh.

There were actually many moments of Levity and ferocious engagement. The best involve Hedda Hopper the power gossip columnist, and former c list actress, played with stellar menace by Helen Mirren. Hopper leveraged her position to align with John Wayne and others (including Ronald Reagan then president of the Screen Actors Guild) to destroy those they felt were using Hollywood to introduce demoralizing concepts of Communism contrary to the American way.There is a scene with Louis B Mayer where Hopper has been reminiscing while exchanging pleasantries before asking that he terminate Trumbo from working at the MGM studio. When Mayer protests that it’s an unbreakable contract, she goes in for the kill. Referring to his attempts to get her on the casting couch back in the day she says, “I wouldn’t  do it then,LB (pause beat) but I’ll Fuck you NOW.” It is one of Many strong moments.Hedda Hopper and others hated Dalton Trumbo even more when he ultimately outwitted them. They are exposed as vicious spite- filled, petty people who loathe, fear and despise true intellectuals and great creative artists for refusing to pander to their narrow word view.

Boardwalk Empire Gangster alum Michael Stuhlbarg cast as Edward G Robinson captures some of the qualities of this sensitive erudite art collector and wine connoisseur. The antithesis of the gangsters he played on screen, Eddy wanted to support the cause, but weakened in the face of  potential career ending ostracism. I wondered though if  they couldn’t just trace the check he wrote as a donation? The physicality is Wrong here and distracting as Stuhlbarg is just too tall. Roger Bart and Louis CK  are characters not known in our collective memory bank, so casting seems more congenial, and both shine. as fellow blacklisted idealist Arlin Hurd and Hollywood hanger on Buddy Ross. John Goodman has the most Fun playing Frank King the exploitation film maker who hired Trumbo under the table. Smashing up his office he physically threatens the Representative of Morality in the Movies who has dared to tell him to stop or face being exposed to newspaper readership.”My audience Doesn’t Read,” the unabashed producer of now beloved lowbrow fare like Gun Crazy (Yup Trumbo wrote that too),  screams in triumph. A cathartic moment many would vicariously like to share, and, wouldn’t be surprised if someone Mimics!

Trumbo at home with his family is also engaging. The ever luminous Diane Lane as his wife Cleo, and Elle Fanning (who has  real Presence and Beauty as his devoted daughter) helped ground the enormity of his loss with Love. There is a scene early on where his little girl asks what a Communist is. To illustrate  he questions her as to what she would do if another classmate came to school hungry with no lunch. if she shares the sandwich then she is indeed a Commie-Classic Teaching moment. We see him later use Amphetamines accompanied by certain personality changes, but these seem to be attributed to the stress of staying up to churn out scripts to support them. When confronted, the irritability vanishes, so there is no real exploration of the impact his usage may have had in any depth. Bryan Cranston powerfully Embodies this towering personality who typed in the tub drinking whiskey. I enjoyed spending time with him and think Jay Roach, primarily known for Comedies such as Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers, has done a Remarkable job.

This movie has received few good reviews and many critical of its character rather then content. Yet at the special SAG screener I attended,people clapped, cheered and cried. Variety called it a stodgy screenplay- I disagree. “Why does everything you say have to sound as if it ought to be engraved in stone” comrade and idealist Arlen Hird groans in mock anger at Trumbo’s portentousness,  yet what a welcome relief it is to have such a witty and erudite protaganist. This film deserves More attention on its Qualities then just contention over his Heroism although it is the Central theme. The so called controversy over his political alliances is a distraction here.  Any bio pic has to have a point of of view. The constant critique and revisionism based on verisimilitude is worthless in this context. Whether one embraces his actions beliefs or choices, the Actual hearings themselves and events as they impacted HIM and his colleagues are Accurately depicted here from Their perspective, as footage from the era will substantiate.  Mainstream attention and awards may elude it, however, anyone who enjoys Real films with Depth heart and humor-like those Trumbo wrote himself- might do a lot worse then to watch this.

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