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Trumbo: Wit in the Face of Pathos

Trumbo 01

By Matthew Sorrento.

Dalton Trumbo’s story is an ideal one to represent the golden age of Hollywood. A famed screenwriter with literary roots (as the winner of the National Book Award for Johnny Got His Gun, 1939) who worked successfully within the studio system for around a decade (late 30s to 40s), he led a life of heroism and assured individualism when such themes, in softer form, were regularly celebrated onscreen. Regrettably, his reputation overshadows his considerable output. Today, he may exist mostly as a cipher, a man of ideas who embodies fortitude under persecution; we yearn to have been one like him, had we reached maturity during the Hollywood Blacklist. He stood firm against the House Un-American Activities Committee while many others in the business accused of Communist involvement – including Elia Kazan, Edward Dmytryk (one of the Hollywood Ten brought before the committee) and later, Edward G. Robinson – buckled and named others. Trumbo represents not just the best of classical Hollywood, but its changes later in the century. In a career spanning the late 1930s to the Blacklist, which along with the Paramount decree of 1948 may have led to the first signs of Hollywood coming transformation, his story extends into the 1960s, the decade that would prove American cinema to be changing forever.

That his tale adapts so well to screen suggests that, while not a leading man, he had star power, like Truman Capote or Alfred Hitchcock. Biopics of the latter two have come in burst of interest, ironically both coming in pairs – for the former, a 2005 namesake film and Infamous (2006); for the later a 2012 film bearing his name and The Girl, made for TV (also 2012, BBC/HBO). Fans of the originals love to hate them, but probably just love them in some way. Such a delicious role likely appealed to Bryan Cranston, who came across an extended vehicle in Breaking Bad (2008-2013) that will give him notoriety for some time. The role consists of many parts hard work and some luck, the kind of payoff that never came to Richard Jenkins who, like Cranston, worked for years in supporting roles before finding some critical acclaim. A natural actor, Cranston is an appropriate choice to play Trumbo, a man who, like Capote, was probably an invention in personality. Cranston’s relaxed presence is more confident than cocky; he controls his portrayal of an appealing eccentric and reassures even those viewers schooled in the backstory.

The support casting is a celebration and a curse. The best work comes from other natural performers, like Diane Lane as Trumbo’s suffering but upbeat wife, Cleo, and John Goodman as an exploitation producer (obvious, but still fun and recalling Dante’s sadly forgotten Matinee, 1993) happy to hire the blacklisted writer and others, under the fronts. Much has been said (and more to come) about Louis CK’s turn as Arlen Hird, the beleaguered screenwriter (a fictional, composite character) who’s a lovable fish out of water following Trumbo’s lead. As long as he continue to act, CK’s appearances will be described as stunt casting, whether purely comic (2013’s American Hustle), comic and ironic (Blue Jasmine, also 2013), or here, unveiling the dying soul of a man. In minimal screen time, CK moves into new territory without taking the awkward step into drama like Bill Murray’s in The Razor’s Edge (1984), which set him back some years. I wouldn’t compare CK’s comical talents to Murray’s unique irreverence. CK’s comical range is limited, though his film acting range sure isn’t, and with Trumbo he made a wise career move. It’s enough to excuse a pair of awkward impressionists, playing Red persecutor John Wayne and redeemer Kirk Douglas, next to a delightful take on Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel). I wanted to like Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, but the famous image of Trumbo working in the tub brings to mind Eddie, bath-bound in Key Largo (1948), a sight which director John Huston described as looking like a “crustacean with its shell off.” A fulsome try, Stuhlbarg just can’t find Eddie.

Prior to this film’s release, Jay Roach’s name following Trumbo’s would sound like a punchline (like Todd Phillips directs Billy Wilder, though I’d be curious to see the results). Even if Roach has made considerable strides with the TV movies Recount (2008) and Game Change (2012), he’s still best known for the overly broad, obvious comedy in Austin Powers (1997-2002) and Meet the Parents series (200-2010). In Trumbo, Roach proves insightful about the how joy can turn to hardship. His 2010 satire, Dinner for Schmucks – overshadowed by its source material, The Dinner Game (1998) – needs a second look. Roach is wise to highlight Trumbo’s wit and bemused lovability while taking the lashes of persecution.

Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International. He teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). He directs the Reel East Film Festival.

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