Film review of Trumbo

(This film review of “Trumbo” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 February 2016.)

Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara, based on the book “Dalton Trumbo” by Bruce Cook
Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman and Michael Stuhlbarg

Although the “Hollywood blacklist” increasingly seems to be an artefact of history, the events of that time – from 1947 to the early 1960s – remain some of the most significant intersections between two objects of world-wide fascination: American film and American politics. During a time of domestic political upheaval and external Soviet expansion, American politics turned rightwards. A “witch-hunt” for American Communists resulted in the “blacklisting” of a number of people in the film industry, under pressure from the US Congress “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC).

That’s the background to the new biopic, “Trumbo”, which focuses on the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the best-known of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten”. Starring Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) in the title role, the film charts Trumbo’s experiences as a left-wing organiser through to the blacklisting process, his time in prison for “contempt of Congress”, his subsequent of writing uncredited scripts in order to make a living, and his triumphant return.

Remarkably, the “blacklist” has only appeared a handful of feature films, notably “The Front” (1976, with Woody Allen), “Guilty by Suspicion” (1991, with Robert De Niro), “The Majestic” (2001, with Jim Carrey), and “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005, George Clooney), and briefly in “The Way We Were” (1973, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford) and the subject of a few documentaries.

The story is a powerful one, and Cranston – nominated for an Oscar for his role – provides one of the best performances of the year. Cranston reflects the complicated nature of this progressive and hard-working genius, who remained loyal to his principles, his family and his friends – and who produced some of the best 20th century American film writing. Helen Mirren gives the film’s other outstanding performance, as right-wing newspaper gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. With such a great actress, it’s not surprising that director Jay Roach (who converted to Judaism to marry his wife, musician Susanna Hoffs) and writer John McNamara give her lots of screen time, significantly over-stating the importance of her role in the blacklist. One scene – surely fictional – sees Hopper threatening MGM boss Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) to bow to the blacklist, calling him various antisemitic epithets. Did this happen? Not likely. Mayer – a businessman like all of the film moguls – reluctantly acceded to the blacklist under political pressure far greater than what Hopper’s newspaper column could bring.

For fans of Jewish film history, there is much to savour in “Trumbo”. In addition to Mayer, other important Jewish characters include “Arlen Hird” (Louis C.K.), a “composite” character representing a number of the Jewish “Hollywood Ten” screenwriters; Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg, the new “go to” Jewish actor for Jewish roles in “Steve Jobs”, “Blue Jasmine” , “A Serious Man” and “Boardwalk Empire”); John Goodman as Frank King (“Kozinsky”), the Jewish schlock movie producer who secretly hired Trumbo and other blacklisted writers; Kirk Douglas (Dean O‘Gorman), who openly hired Trumbo to write the script of “Spartacus”, which Douglas both produced and starred in; and Otto Preminger, the Austrian-Jewish director of “Exodus”, who hired Trumbo to adapt Leon Uris’ novel to the screen.

If there are any heroes in “Trumbo”, King, Douglas and Preminger – all of them Jewish – are the ones, for resisting pressure not to deal with Trumbo. Douglas and Preminger are both widely credited with finally breaking the blacklist, a combination of their personal power and an indication that the political times had changed, particularly under President John F. Kennedy. (Douglas has also stated that the proudest moment of his career was “breaking the blacklist”.)

“Trumbo” has been made with great love of American film, and includes some lovely recreations of famous film scenes, such as Douglas in “Spartacus”, and other notable characters including John Wayne (David James Elliott), and Diane Lane playing Trumbo’s wife Cleo. Despite the great story and some delightful performances, “Trumbo” the film falls down with an often pedestrian script by McNamara; the first third of the film plays like a telemovie rather than a proper feature. My critique of the script goes far deeper, however, in that the focus on Trumbo’s life results in lack of recognition of the role of Jews as the primary victims of the blacklist, and its antisemitic nature.

All of the original “Hollywood Ten” served time in prison for refusing to testify in front of the Congressional Committee, and not just Trumbo (the film does not make this clear). Many film historians point out that antisemitism and attacks on Jews formed a crucial undercurrent of the Congressional investigations and the blacklist. Among the “Ten”, six were Jewish: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz and Sam Ornitz. Of the four non-Jews, three were closely involved with films that dealt with antisemitism: Edward Dymtryk and Adrian Scott (director and producer of “Crossfire”) and Ring Lardner, Jr. (writer of “Earth and High Heaven”, similar to “Gentleman’s Agreement”). Thus of the ten, only Trumbo was neither Jewish nor had worked on an antisemitism project, although “Exodus” came later. The overwhelming majority of HUAC “witnesses”, both friendly and unfriendly, were Jewish.

The film ends, appropriately enough, with Dalton Trumbo’s emotional 1970 speech to the American Screenwriters Guild, when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award, and appeared to forgive those who “named names”, when he famously said, “The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one … who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals…. It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.”

(photo below:  Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird and Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson in “Trumbo”)

Trumbo

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