Trumbo: “a gray fish in murky water”

November 26, 2015

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Elle Fanning
Director: Jay Roach
Rating: R, for language including some sexual references
Running time: 124 minutes

for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood,dirt & angels


Fear makes human beings do pretty horrific things, when it comes down to it. It makes us irrational, closed-minded and selfish, and brings out the worst in our species, like a terrarium filled with water bugs, each one crawling over the one below it in order to escape. It’s what dictators have used for millennia to keep their subjects in line, what empires have provided in return for its subjects’ unquestioned loyalty, and what terrorists use to exhort their message.

Given a hint of fear, we’re suddenly making enemies of one another and enacting laws that leave our beloved Constitution in tatters, a process well documented by numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone, among many other things, and one in whose dark clutches — with proposed “Muslim registries” and closing of borders — we currently find ourselves in cramped residence.

In postwar America, against an enemy every bit as big and powerful and potentially ruthless as we were, the Cold War produced such a fear, of what were thought to be the thousands of communist agents sent here from Moscow to infiltrate our culture in sleeper cells, destroying the American way of life from within. This begat the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, led by hysterical politicians on ghastly witch hunts, trying to root out the supposed secret Red Menace and putting left-leaning Hollywood squarely in their cross hairs.

Jay Roach’s fact-based drama concerns a highly celebrated screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), whose known communist ties (he joined the party in 1943) eventually led him and several of his fellow leftist writers to be subpoenaed by the committee and forced to testify before Congress as to the nature of their loyalty toward their country. Valiantly fighting against this incredible breach of the Bill of Rights, Trumbo, along with his friends, including Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), a cancer-stricken screenwriter, came to be known as the “Hollywood Ten,” most of whom were imprisoned for contempt shortly after their hearings for refusing to answer the committee’s questions.

When they emerged out of jail some months later, they were blacklisted by Hollywood, under the constant assault from something called the Motion Picture Alliance for The Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI, continuing a tradition of horrific acronyms among the anticommunist crusaders), a crusade led by John Wayne (David James Elliot), Ronald Reagan (archive footage) and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), a loathsome ideologue of a gossip columnist. Unable to find work of any kind within the industry, the Hollywood Ten, and many hundreds of other film-industry workers equally banished, were forced to find employment elsewhere.

Cleverly, the workaholic Trumbo circumvented the blacklisting by selling scripts under aliases all over Hollywood, first with cut-rate junk studios, such as King Pictures, led by the irascible Frank King (John Goodman), who cared little about Trumbo’s politics as long as he produced cheap, fast labor. Eventually Trumbo got to work on larger and larger pictures — even winning Oscars, for Roman Holiday, and The Brave One, but always under a nom de plume — leading up to his writing the much-lauded Spartacus for Kirk Douglas, where his real name was finally restored to his work.

Cranston plays Trumbo like a romanticized Hollywood sendup, writing on a small desk from his bathtub, relentlessly smoking from the long black tip of a cigarette holder, and often utilizing an inflected Pepperidge Farm accent. Despite his prominence in the film’s title, though, he is no more revealed to us than a gray fish in murky water. He, along with the film’s population of victims and villains, serve as little more than placards and signposts for the film’s outsize message-based agenda.

Roach’s film dutifully plays out these pivotal years in Trumbo’s life, but generally in the much-reviled style of the standard bio-pic, with every scene leading to a transparent, obvious point to hurtle the story further. The effect, along with the film’s penchant for sentimentalism — it literally ends with Trumbo giving a speech about forgiveness from upon an awards dais — keeps it from being terribly effective as a work of art; but as an incredibly timely political examination, it proves more duly efficient.

The fact that Hollywood considers itself far enough removed now that it can see to being self-critical for its own role in this shameful period — casting damning aspersions toward many of its old former icons, including a terribly misguided Wayne, and a miserable Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) — I suppose is meant to suggest that they’ve come a long way. But that’s the thing with fear: Seemingly everyone is reasonable in times of genial prosperity. It’s when things get menacing that our true nature is revealed, and that, unfortunately, never seems to change very much. The thing about that terrarium is: For every bug that actually escapes, 20 others are pushed farther down into the squirming morass.

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