No room for pol­i­tics amid the glitz

The gut­less­ness to this biopic sug­gests that Hol­ly­wood is still un­com­fort­able with the red meat of rad­i­cal pol­i­tics, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane in Trumbo

TRUMBO Direct­edby JayRoach. Star­ring BryanCranston, He­lenMir­ren, DianeLane,Elle Fan­ning, Louis CK,JohnGood­man,StephenRoot, MichaelS­tuhlbarg,Roger Bart, Ade­waleAkin­n­uoye- Ag­baje.15A cert,gen­re­lease, 124min You sense the film in­dus­try still hasn’t for­given it­self for the Hol­ly­wood black­list. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the stu­dios shut out dozens of pro­fes­sion­als who dared to lean left­wards in a coun­try in­fected with para­noid psy­choses about the red men­ace.

The writ­ers had it eas­ier than most. They could, at least, hide be­hind pseu­do­nyms and use “fronts” – help­ful col­leagues who passed on the fees – to rep­re­sent them at func­tions. The most fa­mous of those men was the charis­matic, ec­cen­tric Dal­ton Trumbo. For 10 years, the screen­writer was forced to write clas­sics such as Ro­man Hol­i­day and Gun Crazy un­der as­sumed names. He ham­mered out gutsy pulp for mi­nor stu­dios. Even­tu­ally, thanks to the stub­born courage of Kirk Dou­glas and Otto Preminger, his cred­its ap­peared on Spar­ta­cus and Ex­o­dus.

A small por­tion of the debt is re­paid in a biopic that veers from the pedes­trian to the lu­di­crous to the in­de­cently en­ter­tain­ing. At its worst, Trumbo plays to the same pa­tro­n­is­ing rules as the sort of low-rent ca­ble biopic that asks us to be­lieve Matthew Perry might be Clark Gable. (Don’t get any ideas, Life­time TV.) At its best, it sug­gests the silly fizz of Hol­ly­wood as rein­ter­preted in Who Framed Roger Rab­bit.

What we don’t get is any con­vinc­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Trumbo’s pol­i­tics. In­hab­ited by the al­ways-wel­come Bryan Cranston, this ver­sion of the writer (who joined the Com­mu­nist Party as late as 1943) comes across as a demo­cratic so­cial­ist in the mode of Bernie San­ders.

There’s a gut­less­ness to the ap­proach that sug­gests the main­stream is still not quite com­fort­able with the red meat of rad­i­cal pol­i­tics.

As the film be­gins, Trumbo is liv­ing the high life with a lovely fam­ily on a ru­ral es­tate by a sparkling lake. The clouds are gath­er­ing, but they have not yet dark­ened. No­to­ri­ous gos­sip colum­nist Hedda Hop­per (He­len Mir­ren) and John Wayne (David James El­liott) are start­ing to make noises. The House UnAmeri- can Affairs Com­mit­tee even­tu­ally comes to­gether and de­mands that Trumbo and his col­leagues tes­tify. He be­comes one of 10 who fa­mously refuse to recog­nise the pro­ceed­ings and find them­selves pro­pelled into the pro­fes­sional shad­ows.

The shape of the story is well known and John McNa­mara’s script makes no at­tempt to dis­cover novel struc­tures or fresh flavours. How odd that a film about a screen­writer con­tains so lit­tle you could call writ­ing. In­stead we get a se­ries of linked sketches on the theme of Hol­ly­wood’s great mid-cen­tury break­down.

Cranston has fun with the role, but he strug­gles with the more flam­boy­ant flour­ishes of Trumbo’s per­son­al­ity. Al­ways at home with hon­est toil, the ac­tor con­vinces us that this sort of pres­sure re­ally could grind a man down. Cranston is, how­ever, not the sort of ac­tor who can drink a mar­tini in the bath with­out look­ing slightly un­com­fort­able.

A host of good sports stroll by to de­liver cameos of vary­ing po­tency. Elle Fan­ning is gen­uinely touch­ing as Trumbo’s daugh­ter Nikola, one of the few peo­ple who can halt his am­phet­a­mine rush. Dean O’Gor­man is hi­lar­i­ous as a breath­tak­ingly healthy Kirk Dou­glas – formed from a mus­cu­lar in­verted tri­an­gle ap­pended on a stal­lion’s front legs. Michael Stuhlbarg brings out Ed­ward G Robin­son’s ter­ri­ble con­flicted state.

Then there’s He­len Mir­ren. It is prob­a­bly against the law to be in any way un­kind about the for­mer Ms Mironoff, but her turn as Hop­per is un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally fright­ful. Cack­ling like a twin-set Cruella Deville, sim­mer­ing like Joan Craw­ford as Lady Mac­beth, she makes no ef­fort to soften a vil­lain whose lines play as if writ­ten for a Gai­ety pan­tomime.

“I’ll get you Trumbo! Just you wait!” she doesn’t ac­tu­ally scream in the last line, but she may as well have done.

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