Trumbo

February 18, 2016
Bryan Cranston in 'Trumbo' (2015)
Bryan Cranston in 'Trumbo' (2015)

It doesn’t require a philosopher to point out discrepancies between the law and justice. This was born out last week – as Trumbo hit the cinemas – by the convulsions over the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia. By all accounts this is a game-breaker in the bitter conflict between Left and Right which has come to dominate American politics. When the Republicans are in power they stack the Supreme Court with so-called conservatives, while the Democrats insert so-called liberals.

Such political partisanship makes a farce of judicial objectivity, and democracy in general. It may be too much to expect that a Justice of the Supreme Court should be entirely free of political beliefs but the way appointments are made turns the Court into little more than an extension of Congress, where politicians vote along party lines.

It’s anticipated that a liberal appointment will create a favourable climate for progressive legislation, but when Dalton Trumbo and his colleagues were due to come before the Supreme Court to challenge their 1947 convictions for contempt of Congress, a liberal judge died and the balance of power flipped back to the conservatives. This was probably the difference between exoneration and a gaol sentence. It would have a crucial impact on the decade of paranoia and repression that followed.

There have been several movies exploring that shameful era in Hollywood history in which industry professionals with left wing leanings were blacklisted by the big studios. It was a time of Cold War hysteria with Senator Joe McCarthy presiding over the House committee on Un-American Activities. Anti-communist sentiment reached its height in 1953 when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair as Soviet spies.

The committee had turned its attention to Hollywood in 1947, recognising the movies’ enormous potential for propaganda. Anyone who had been a member of the Communist Party was immediately suspect, but the net extended to those with pronounced liberal convictions. The purge would destroy the careers of thousands of film professionals, forcing figures such as Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles to seek work overseas.

The most high profile case was that of the Hollywood Ten, which included the renowned screenwriter, Trumbo, and his peers. Called before the committee, the group refused to answer many leading questions, arguing that the process was unconstitutional.

Trumbo would serve nine months in a Kentucky prison when the sentence was upheld, and then struggle to make a living in a field in which he had previously been leader of the pack. The problem was the blacklist – which the studios had been bullied into enforcing. It would extend for a decade, exerting a disastrous impact on the quality of films during that period.

Jay Roach’s biopic takes up Trumbo’s story at a point when he is the richest and most celebrated screenwriter in town, before taking us through the ordeal of the anti-communist hearings and his subsequent imprisonment. The second, most fascinating part of the film details Trumbo’s efforts to make a living during the years of the blacklist, writing scripts at breakneck speed for B-movie studios, under a long list of pseudonyms. He moved his family to Mexico, but in this portrait he is generously allowed to stay in California.

Although these B films were unashamed schlock, it was hard for a writer like Trumbo to avoid any hint of quality. When one of his pseudonymous scripts was nominated for an Academy Award in 1957, the stranglehold of the blacklist was loosened. Trumbo’s rehabilitation would owe a debt to the bravery of figures such as Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas, who engaged his services and paid him due credit. By 1960 the blacklist was over, leaving a trail of broken lives in its wake.

Bryan Cranston delivers such a strong performance in the lead role that if it wasn’t for Leo DeCaprio’s superhuman efforts in The Revenant, he would be odds-on for the Best Actor Oscar. His portrayal of Trumbo is witty, resilient, capricious, and feels true-to-life. The other roles are of interest for the portrayal of famous Hollywood figures. Michael Stuhlbarg is convincing as Edward G. Robinson; Kiwi actor, Dean O’Gorman, does a pretty good Kirk Douglas; but it’s hard to see David James Elliott in the guise of John Wayne. It’s simply too much to expect any actor to capture the Duke, with his lumbering mannerisms.

The most waspish of portraits is Helen Mirren’s turn as Hedda Hopper, the all-powerful Hollywood gossip columnist who backed the anti-communist purge with fanatical energy. She comes across as a woman drunk on her own power, who takes a sadistic pleasure in making celebrities and studio moguls dance to her tune.

Despite a suitably dense script, the film moves along rapidly. Its most remarkable achievement is its portrayal of the life of a writer. This is not easy because the practice of sitting at a typewriter (or a computer) for hours and hours, hardly makes for compulsive viewing. It’s partly the way Trumbo writes that is so engaging. He continually swills scotch and pops benzedrine tablets. He does his re-writes in the bath, muttering lines to himself. While this is going on, day and night, his family skulk about the house, respectful of their father’s mania, but growing increasingly alienated.

There is, of course, another significant aspect to Trumbo. It asserts the importance of individual freedoms in an era when those rights are threatened by a new hysteria about national security, with all the intrusive and draconian measures that entails. Trumbo is a man of conscience in a milieu in which most people choose the path of expediency. The film asks us to consider how far we would go in defence of our convictions. It’s an old question but it never loses its relevance.

Trumbo
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara, after a biography by Bruce Cook
Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, Elle Fanning, Louis C.K., Alan Tudyk, John Goodman, Dean O’Gorman, David James Elliott
USA, rated M, 124 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 20th February, 2016.