Wide Range. Cultural Focus. Editor Patrick Neithard
Trumbo, the story about the famous blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo premiered Thursday in Zurich
By Patrick Neithard, March 6th 2016
There is a fine line between a movie that pretends to be a biopic and at the same time is desirous to be a fluffy historical lesson. Often, this becomes obvious when in such films additional characters are (ab-)used as personnel to further explain both to the audience. “Trumbo” is such a tremendously flawed movie. But that does not make it any less watchable, as “Trumbo”, feeds off its protagonist`s wits.
Hysterically montaged Fiction
In parts fictionalised, in parts real, the film sets off in the aftermath of WWII in the 1947 Harry S. Truman`s America and zooms in to Los Angeles with a Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) in his mid-forties typewriting away in his bathtub. A far too catchy montage of his success-so-far-as-a-writer leads over to one-of-these-parties-where-the-personnnel-dorée meets, to finally exhaust itself ushering Trumbo with his family into cinema seats. Here, in a common black and white newsreel, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) introduces the Hollywood power couple Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart as strikers demanding for fair pay (or was it perhaps just equal pay?). Moreover, she introduces them as victims. Victims that is of being puppets or empty vessels doing anything, if not at least a tad bit for extra money (as that apparently is how the featherheaded former actress gone Madame de Societé saw actors at that time) to support communism. And as quick as newsreel montage is, she fingerpoints at a personified threat gone incarnated devil, gone puppet master/writer with a personal agenda: Dalton Trumbo. He, who, according to her, had joined the communist party only to bring the country down. That`s the fiction part. Trumbo, as many Americans much earlier during the great depression 1930, had joined the American communist party 1943 with no intention other than making a statement against the rioting national-socialism (aka fascism) in europe during WWII. But as times changed, so did history, and so did the attitudes towards acts of solidarity (in this case solidarity with the jewish people, with the Holocaust).
Clueless lessons in history
There is not much of any deeper explaining happening. Established as a polarized discussion about anti-communist hearings held in Washington and Los Angeles, we witness Trumbo pondering his future. These hearings, held by the U.S. congressional “Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC), aimed their investigations at possible threats of subversion to the american society, be it by Nazi ties (the HUAC preexisted already before WWII) or, after WWII, by communism, something that would consistently haunt the minds of europeans further just as well, and in its fearmongering, it was a phenomenon known much more broadly than just in the Americas, as Europeans referred to it also as “red threat”. But in the aftermath of a world war, the wildly projective and hyperhysteric manufactured consent did not stop somewhere before the mountains of Ural, ( showing newsreel did not stop at borders either by the way) and so even China was medially constructed as “the yellow threat”. War, any kind of war, makes mankind paranoid. And suspecting any possible rising danger to post-war democracies results in media medication. And investigations. HUAC did not stop at the front door of Hollywood, in fact, Hollywood with its writers and directors was one of their major goals in these post-war times. Was there reasonable doubt? If propaganda in Europe had made its way into film production (think Nazi concubine Leni Riefenstahl who during the great depression up until WWII fabricated movies, propaganda movies, in Berlin) even within hysteria, there is always a truth to at least a very small extent. And yet, as sensible as Trumbo must have been we see him confronting actor John Wayne for whom he has a quick wit: “If you`re gonna talk about World War II as if you personally won it, let`s be clear where you were stated. On a film set, shooting blanks, wearing make-up. And if you`re going to hit me, I`d like to take off my glasses.” Certainly, in todays film production that makes for a dialogue as it grants to establish Trumbo as well as the film industry as non-political, and perhaps the allegations as fictional as Hollywoods renditions itself. However, “Trumbo”, the movie itself, here is already at its zenite of presenting facts.
Renitency of a sensible writer?
What happened next was that Trumbo, like other nine members of the Hollywood studio system were invited to the HUAC hearings. Trumbo, using the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, refused to answer to any of the congressional committee`s inquiries, which ushered him right off to jail as he was consequentally, and lawfully to the letter, sentenced guilty for contempt of Congress. That`s what added him to the famous Hollywood Blacklist, blocking him and the others from further being able to work. Up until that time, 1947, the 1905 born prolific screenwriter (a descendant to a swiss immigrant to the U.S. in 1736 named Jacob Trumbo) had written about at least 15 successful scripts for Hollywood screen productions (and about at least five novels and nonfictional works as a novelist). Again, in the movie there is nothing added that would shed a specific light on his persona. Was he really a communist? After watching this movie we simply cannot say. Sure, we can witness him explain to his very young daughter Nikola Trumbo (“Niki”) what a commie might be. “So. Dad. Are you a communist? That lady with the big fat hat said you`re a dangerous radical. Are you?” Trumbo: “Yes”. (…) Niki: “Am I?” Trumbo: “Let`s give you a test. Your Mom packs your favourite lunch. At school you see someone with no lunch. What do you do?” Niki: “Share?” Trumbo :“ You don`t tell them to get a job? Offer a loan at six percent?” Niki “No.” Trumbo: “Well well, you little commie.” It`s perhaps a heartfelt dialogue between two witty, familiarly loving people. Still, it is also as shallow as concoction can go. And it is one of the many parts which make this movie so shamelessly faulty. It only has one message. There was, or better, there is socialism in the world. And it pays well not to participate. Trumbo was just one of these. For the swiss audience, if not for european screens in general, such fabricated content suffices to cement opinions held towards conservative Americans, saying that Americans would often point at anything resounding socialist welfare, (and yes, there is social welfare within the political structures of several states of europe ) and equate these structures with “socialism”. Its most vivid example was found in the health insurance program Obama-/ Hillarycare. Enabling such misconceptions and prejudices is a lax, simplistic and irresponsible way of moviemaking today.
The nonexistent reparation
Trumbo served at least 11 months at the Penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. However, in the movie, in jail, he of all people meets Congressman J. Parnell Thomas, a former head of the HUAC, who is sentenced to jail for tax evasion. Only in reality Congressman J. Parnell Thomas served his jail time in Danbury, Connecticut. Oh fabulous montage, ah, divine wardrobe? And while here, “Trumbo” in the fictitous meeting uses common Trumbo-quotes such as “Not all news is worrisome. Some reminds me that what imagination can`t conjure, reality delivers with a shrug.” (Which happens during another hearing broadcast on radio) And earlier, while J. Parnell Thomas and Trumbo “meet” in jail and Thomas utters “We`re in the same boat now” and Trumbo replies “Except that you commited a crime and I did not.” it`s as faulty a dialogue as can be, places Trumbo`s mind in questionable areas as Trumbo`s sentencing was unquestionable. So far, “Trumbo” feels like watching “The Bourne Identity” (2002) where a portrayed “Zurich, Switzerland” (yep, a little Tram, a little snow, here we go, we got Switzerland) has actually been shot in Prague in the Czech Republic. At times movies and mankind`s possibilities awarded by globalization would really need to be brought into sync.
Better in the end
After serving his time, Dalton Trumbo returns to his family. His wive Cleo (Diane Lane) and his children witness a blacklisted man who from now on – does the same as he did before. He writes, only this time around he has to use aliases. It is the turning point in the movie, going forward from fictional trash towards authenticity, while holding on to a homey set, although partially gruesome lit. Still, even some suspense seems to return, when Trumbo in 1953 writes the romance “The Roman Holiday”, and 1954 wins an Academy Award. Ian Mc Lellan Hunter fronted the script and accepted the award. However, the family suffered greatly, which is portrayed in the patient seriousness by Diane Lane, as the days of richness and fair pay now had gone, and studios fished for Trumbo`s scipts for a fraction of what he was used to earn. But take it, they did. 1956 Dalton Trumbo wrote “The Brave One” under the pseudonym “Robert Rich” which 1957 won him another Academy Award. And yes, in both cases the whole family Trumbo witnessed the Academy Awards show at home. Trumbo has written epic historic dramas like “Spartacus” and “Exodus” until 1960, in both, he is credited as himself again. However some of his life`s work has been restored only posthumous. The brainy and expert performance of a most gifted, still down to earth writer earned Bryan Cranston an Academy Award nomination for best actor, which is why the movie is definitely watchable. Neither have I felt repercussions of his Television Roles in “Breaking Bad”, nor were there reoccurrences of his formidably performed fathering neurosis as in “Malcolm in The Middle”either. Bryan Cranston first movie act is expertly and flawless. The film plot is not.
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Trumbo. Runtime 124 min En/de Drama, Biopic Production: Bleecker Street Media, USA Director : Jay Roach Writer: John McNamara Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo Diane Lane as Cleo Trumbo Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper Louis CK as Arlen Hird Michael Stuhlbarg as Edgar G. Roberts Distributed in CH: Ascot Elite to Houdini Cinema, Arthouse Movie and Kitag Cinemas