Saturday, December 12, 2015

War Of Words

Reel To Reel: Trumbo

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren
Rated: R
Red Flags: Multiple uses of the f-word, brief male rear nudity

I had never heard of Dalton Trumbo before I saw this picture, even though he wrote dozens of screenplays -- some classic, some fine, some just skirting the garbage can -- along with several novels. I turn out at least two dozen short TV news scripts a day. Trumbo could crank out a 100-page screenplay in three days with some baseline of quality, all with a typewriter, scissors and cellophane tape. But his overwhelming contribution to Hollywood was breaking its notorious blacklist, something intended to protect American values while violating the spirit of a sacred American tenet: the First Amendment.

Trumbo walks us through the story of its title character (Cranston) as the Red Scare closes in around him. He's one of the highest paid contract writers in Hollywood when word of his Communist sympathies filters back to Washington. He and nine others in the film industry are subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo and the others realize it's a kangaroo court and refuse to answer questions. Congress finds them in contempt, sending Trumbo and the others to jail.

After nearly a year in the can, he returns home to find a strong family but a broken career. He can't work for any major studio. He sells a screenplay for Roman Holiday through a front writer, but he realizes he will have to take on more work to keep the lights on. Trumbo goes to work for a small B-movie studio whose co-topper Frank King (Goodman) unapologetically unspools garbage onto the screen. King is ecstatic to see the quality of Trumbo's work, and the studio gives him steady work as a writer and script doctor. Trumbo soon devises an underground network to keep himself and fellow blacklisted writers in business.

A key ally is fellow screen scribe Alan Hird (Louis C.K.), an idealist who wants to take the studios to court. Being a member of the Communist party isn't illegal, the argument goes, and somebody needs to stand. Trumbo argues the deck is stacked against the Hollywood Ten, and they need to find other ways to stand on principle while still winning by making a living. Hird is in a fight for his life on multiple fronts; he's suffering from lung cancer along with a career in crisis. Trumbo also puts a lot on the line as he involves his entire family in his work, forcing them to help retype and ferry scripts.

On the other side of the equation, you have the Hollywood brass who lack spine. They're putty in the hands of powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren), the Nikki Finke of her time. Michael Stuhlbarg turns in a capable performance as Edward G. Robinson, who named names to keep working and found no peace. But the film belongs to Bryan Cranston, whose irascible portrayal of Trumbo -- wit, warts and all -- powers the film. Even though we have a hard time understanding whether the famed screenwriter had method to his madness or just madness, we can't stop watching him puff his cigarettes and pound his typewriter between riffs and bouts with Hollywood's players.

It's hard to ignore the present-day parallels. As this post hits, we are in the middle of a national debate over freedom of religion versus terrorist religious extremism and how this nation should respond to it. Several are raising the spectre of Hitler. The spectre of HUAC seems much more fitting.

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