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Posts Tagged ‘Diane Lane’

Most people, I think, would agree that it is something of a social no-no to talk about yourself too much. In the film industry, of course, the rules are often different to those of everyday life and in recent years we have seen something of a mini-boom in high-profile productions wherein Hollywood talks about itself in great detail and at considerable length. Sometimes these films are ultimately fictions, but on other occasions we are treated to a re-telling of stuff which is actually supposed to have happened – in short, we are back in ‘based on a true story’ territory again. This week’s essay in non-fictitious fiction is Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach (perhaps best known for the Austin Powers movies).

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Dalton Trumbo is one of those names which is so distinctive that many people are aware of it without knowing much about the person it was attached to. The film does its best to dispel this ignorance: Trumbo was a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s, fond of the good life and lengthy baths, and (it would seem) especially fond of the sound of his own voice. He was also quite fond of social justice and left-wing politics, to the point where he refused to cross the picket lines of strikers.

The film opens with the HUAC commission coming to prominence and the activities and beliefs of Trumbo (here played by Bryan Cranston) and a group of other left-leaning writers coming under increasingly intense and hostile scrutiny. The crusade against them is marshalled by shrill gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), with various other right-wing movie stars weighing in too. Eventually Trumbo and the others are summoned to appear before Congress, where they will be expected to answer questions about their political beliefs and those of others they know.

Trumbo, of course, decides this is unjust and unconstitutional and ends up losing his job and being sent to jail for a year for his refusal to cooperate. With Communists officially barred from doing any work in the movie industry, things look bleak for our man – but enough cleverness and determination can take a man a long way. But is his family – especially his wife (Diane Lane) – strong enough to bear the weight of his principles?

You kind of wonder just who Trumbo has been made for, given the setting and topic don’t exactly seem calculated to appeal to people who couldn’t get a ticket for Deadpool. Roach and the screenwriters may have been hoping to bring a too-little-known tale to wider prominence, especially with the casting of the guy from the thing about the teacher, but I still think this film is mainly going to be seen by reasonably mature, well-informed people who are already broadly familiar with the subject matter. If this is the case, then Trumbo makes some serious missteps, because it is much too simplistic about many of the issues and personalities involved. Very early on, Trumbo’s young daughter asks him to explain what a Communist is, and the expalantion he gives – basically, ‘Communists are people who believe in sharing’ – is cringeworthy. My own politics are firmly left of centre, but I still think there are a few more shades to the political spectrum than that.

In a similar vein, the two sides in the struggle at the heart of the film are drawn in an equally uncompromising way. Trumbo and his fellow blacklistees are likable, witty, decent people, and Kirk Douglas is a brave, decent guy, while Hedda Hopper is virtually a Nazi and John Wayne is a bullying hypocrite. Edward G Robinson in particular is presented in a fairly unflattering light – basically, he caves in and names names before the HUAC commission, which is a particular problem given that historically he did no such thing.

So as a political drama, Trumbo is rather awkward and clumsy – just about the only time the film does anything dramatically surprising is when Trumbo meets an apparently-illiterate black inmate in prison, and the film totally undercuts the audience’s expectations of what happens next. However, as a piece of entertainment, it still has a lot to offer, because the middle section is stuffed with very funny scenes. Post prison, the only people Trumbo can get work from are Poverty Row Z-movie producers the King brothers (John Goodman has an unreasonable amount of fun as the senior brother) and he basically sets up a script farm where blacklisted Oscar-nominated writers knock out scripts about womens’ prisons and bug-eyed alien monsters. (Shades of The Front.) Having once had delusions of writing ability myself, I enjoyed the scenes of Trumbo simply being a brilliant writer under very trying conditions to be enormously enjoyable.

In the end, though, rehabilitation comes in the form of gigs writing big movies for Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. (Trumbo seems convinced that Spartacus is some kind of all-time classic of the cinema, which strikes me as pushing it a bit – I mean, it’s two hours of brilliant entertainment, but spread across a 197-minute movie.) The nature of this kind of film means that it’s about very famous people who don’t really look like they should – so you’ve got a John Wayne who doesn’t really look like John Wayne, a Kirk Douglas who doesn’t quite look like Kirk Douglas, and so on. Once you get past trying to work out who’s supposed to be who, it’s all good fun, though. (The film cuts a few corners by intercutting actual scenes from Spartacus, with the real Douglas, with reconstructions featuring Dean O’Gorman, who plays Trumbo‘s version of him.)

What stops Trumbo from becoming either a well-meaning but bungled attempt at a serious drama or just another piece of behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood fun is the central performance of Cranston, which gives the movie serious heft and gravitas. It’s a fairly big and actorly performance, but one gets the impression that Trumbo was that kind of character anyway. Rather commendably, the film makes it clear that while Trumbo was indeed a man of deep conviction and personal integrity, he could also be a monumental pain in the neck and almost impossible to live with – and Cranston puts all of these things across impeccably.

Which, I suppose, must lead us to the regular ‘what are the chances of gongs?’ slot all of these films trawling for Oscars receive. Quite understandably, only Cranston is up for the big awards, something which I suspect would ordinarily hurt his chances. Then again, I suspect quite a lot of people would like to see him get some recognition for a steady career, even if his most notable role by far has been that thing on TV with the teacher. And, as previously noted, Hollywood does love stories about itself, especially ones with the right kind of virtue-triumphs ending. So I would say Cranston is in with a decent chance. Win or not, he is the most impressive thing in a film which obviously means well but doesn’t quite have the brains or the subtlety to be totally successful.

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