by Lee Purvey
It seems like every four years the definition of “America” -- which, we’ll remember, is only a proper noun -- gets dragged out and publicly renegotiated in our national consciousness. In our contemporary political landscape, so many of the issues that inform our executive elections -- from immigration to Second Amendment rights to government surveillance to foreign policy -- provide a canvas upon which wildly disparate ideas of some presumed national character get inscribed. With the campaigns for the White House and the Academy Awards both underway, films like Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies have begun to appear: movies endeavoring to make sense of a nation that has survived centuries of political and demographic flux. What is America, these films ask? And who gets to enjoy the identity and attendant rights of participation in this national community?
Landmark Edina Cinema
Director: Jay Roach
Producers: Kevin Kelly Brown, Monica Levinson, Michael London, Nimitt Mankad, John McNamara, Shivani Rawat, Janice Williams
Writers: John McNamara, Bruce Cook (book)
Cinematographer: Jim Denault
Editor: Alan Baumgarten
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Maldonado, John Getz, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, James DuMont, Alan Tudyk, Louis C.K., Dan Bakkedahl, Richard Portnow, Roger Bart
US Theatrical Release: November 6, 2015
US Distributor: Bleecker Street Media
In Hollywood, where opinion tends towards portside, it's the jarring discrepancy between purportedly “American” ideals of tolerance, democracy, and civil liberties and the troubling realities of our nation’s history that tend to land front and center. This is the subject of Trumbo, Jay Roach’s new drama about an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who was famously blacklisted by Hollywood’s major studios during the late 1940s and ‘50s due to his involvement in the Communist Party. Dalton Trumbo (played by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston) was an A-list writer until 1947, when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as part of their ongoing investigation of supposed communist influences in Hollywood. When he refused to answer the Committee’s questions, Trumbo was found guilty of contempt of Congress, serving 11 months in prison in 1950-51. Upon his release, he struggled to find writing work for the next decade, publishing screenplays through friends and under pseudonyms until the disclosure of his involvement in Exodus and Spartacus (both released in 1960) marked his return to the Hollywood mainstream and the beginning of the end of the blacklist.
In line with the most conventional biopics, Trumbo aims for comprehensive biography, following its subject through several decades and most of the major events of his career. At Trumbo’s side throughout this odyssey are his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), and his three children, played at various ages by eight different actors (most notably, the transitioning child star Elle Fanning). Also relevant are a dozen or so Hollywood insiders on both sides of the blacklist divide, whom Trumbo has to persuade, placate, or avoid at different times throughout the film, depending on shifting pressures, whether professional, personal, or political in nature. Yes, from a purely narrative standpoint, this is as much of a mess as it sounds. But so is life, and, insofar as Trumbo aspires towards measured biography, I don’t blame Roach for asking his lead to make sense of it all -- especially considering the lead in question.
Trumbo represents the first true test of Cranston’s appeal as a feature star and it’s one the four-time Lead Actor Emmy winner passes with ease. Trumbo the historical figure -- with his horn-rimmed glasses and ubiquitous cigarette holder, his penchant for whiskey and idiosyncratic habit of writing in the bath -- might, in another actor’s hands, become a lurid parody of classical Hollywood’s boozy underbelly. But Cranston sinks deeper into his character’s skin, imbuing him with a paternal physicality -- you can practically smell the smoke on him -- and a believable erudite charm. The veteran plays with his back to the wall and a smile on his face, his character’s charismatic decency fraying over the years into paranoid, self-righteous bullying. Beset by ignorance, the writer seems to forget who his enemies are, lashing out at anyone -- family and friends included -- he sees as standing between him and professional vindication.
Unfortunately, John McNamara’s flat script and Roach’s directing -- which somehow manage to evoke stiffness and melodrama simultaneously -- lend only the vaguest outline to this intriguing character arc.
Roach (who made his name on the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents comedy franchises) can’t coax a believable performance out of anyone in what is, on paper, a very solid supporting cast. Louis C.K., so good in Blue Jasmine and American Hustle, walks a confused line between the everyman incredulity of his semi-fictional FX show and the most egregious Oscar-baiting melodrama: when he confides his lung cancer diagnosis to Trumbo in the halls of the capitol, it takes a full beat to realize you’re not meant to laugh. His curmudgeonly martyrdom is clearly supposed to raise the question of ends and means for Trumbo’s war on the blacklist, but generally McNamara’s characters fall too easily into two distinct categories: the heroic liberals of Trumbo’s party crusading for First Amendment rights and the dimensionless jingoists on the other side. Helen Mirren’s appearance as the venomous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper carries a similar appeal to Kristin Scott Thomas’ black widow in Only God Forgives, but lacks legs. David James Elliott’s turn as a beefy, chauvinist John Wayne is worse. Far from real people, these are easy caricatures of Cold War ignorance, meant to distance this archaic, unenlightened Hollywood from that of the contemporary Academy members to whom this work is unmistakably addressed. Even before affable Hollywood good guys Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) show up to redeem the big studios, it’s clear Trumbo is pulling its punches.
In its closing minutes, McNamara and Roach attempt the same kind of thematic backflip Bridge of Spies -- a thoughtful film that treats the Cold War with cultural relativism and a convincing vision of what America at its best can be -- stuck so effortlessly last month. “It will do you no good to seek for heroes or villains,” he tells members of the Writers Guild of America as he accepts a Laurel Award in 1970. “There weren’t any. There were only victims.” With these words, Trumbo seems to argue (somewhat confusedly) that it was the Cold War ideologies, the stereotypes themselves, that were at fault, not the people who perpetrated them. This uninspired film might make that point more convincingly if it wasn’t full of stereotypes itself.