Film Review: Trumbo



Once upon a time life for many working people in the industrialised West was barely a step up from outright slavery. Those that toiled on farms, construction sites and in factories could expect to work 12 hours plus a day 7 days a week for survival wages and few rights of redress. While there were enlightened employers who maintained reasonable working hours, decent pay, benefits and a day off every week but there were many more who maintained that the exploitation of workers for profit was not only their right, but also a sacred duty. In many industrialised societies including NZ this all began changing in the early part of the 20th century as the people, now armed with the hard won right to vote, began demanding a fairer share of the communities collective wealth and power.

The financial turmoil and ensuing chaos of the Great Depression, which kicked into full gear in the early 1930s, was the deal breaker and in many parts of the world established political orthodoxies collapsed ushering in a new wave of political reformers dedicated to making society a more equitable place for all its members.

In NZ it was the first Labour Government under Michael Joseph Savage that ushered in this new era of social democratic values that included free and compulsory education for children, (who until very recently had few rights and whose labour was often exploited in the worst possible ways), free health care, financial support for societies most vulnerable and a whole host of new laws aimed at improving wages and working conditions.

In the US, the Democratic Party led by F.D.R (Theodore Delano Roosevelt) under the banner of The New Deal, led the way in a brutal war of political attrition where conservative opponents accused Roosevelt, born into wealth and privilege, as being a traitor to his class. Reviled by the Republican elite, but beloved by the people, F.D.R persevered and ushered in an era of economic and social reforms that were define America for decades to come.

By the time of the Second World War, Roosevelt’s New Deal had gone a long way toward returning the nation to economic prosperity, but as America’s huge industrial base roared into life manufacturing the necessaries of war, the workers manning the production lines were no longer content to sit back and have their terms and conditions of employment dictated to them.

For working American’s, the Second World War was an era of unprecedented industrial unrest as workers demanded better conditions of employment, a fight that was still raging as the war came to a close and many tens of thousands aligned themselves with the Communist movement as they sought ever more radical solutions of wealth and power inequality.

One of these activists was successful Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Wealthy enough not to have to care, Trumbo nevertheless did care and was happy enough to put his neck on the line in support of the army of underpaid workers who maintained the motion picture industry; carpenters, electricians, technical assistants, make-up artists, hairdressers, runners and designers to name but a few.

This made him less than popular with those that ran the Hollywood studios but his bankable talent made him, to a degree, untouchable until the Republican led anti-communist movement began to flex it’s muscles. Unsettled by the growing power and influence of the Soviet Union, they began to actively persecute anyone associated with the communist movement who they considered ‘a clear and present threat’ to democratic values. Overnight many thousands of communist leaning white and blue-collar workers found themselves out of work and socially ostracised.

Singled out by a powerful industry organisation called The Motion Picture Alliance (for the preservation of American ideals), Trumbo and his close associates were targeted, outcast and banned from working. Trumbo was no communist ideologist, rather a workers rights campaigner for whom the communist badge was just a tool in his activist’s arsenal. Called before Congress to answer charges of un-American activities, Trumbo stuck to his guns and determined to defend his constitutional right to freedom of thought and expression refused to respond to the charges made against him and served 11 months in prison as punishment for his contempt.

There is a compelling scene where Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) accompanied by friends attends a meeting of The Motion Alliance to hand out pamphlets that offer another point of view of their activities. They listen on while movie star John Wayne gives a speech lambasting the traitorous activity of communist sympathisers whose work he declares serves to dishonour the sacrifices made by the brave men and women (counting himself among their number) who fought the forces of oppression so recently in Europe and the Pacific.

Trumbo confronts Wayne after the meeting and asks him (rhetorically) “There you are standing before us and making it sound like you won the war all on your own but what did you actually do during the war? While the rest of us were away serving overseas in various capacities, you were safe on the movie set having make-up applied and play acting.” Trumbo’s less than subtle implication being that Wayne was disingenuous, pointing the finger while he himself had not been prepared to make any considerable sacrifice for the cause of freedom. Needless to say, Wayne did not take this favourably but Trumbo’s point was well made, his accusers were hypocrites who were not above utilising the same tools of ‘divide, rule and oppress’ as the enemies they feared.

Bryan Cranston got his big break playing the put upon father in the long running absurdist TV comedy series Malcolm In The Middle and then surprised one and all a few years later when he returned to the small screen as Walter White, a science teacher turned methamphetamine king-pin, in the massively influential series Breaking Bad. With White, Cranston demonstrated the depth of his acting ability and in the process, turned himself into something of a cultural icon.

Cranston’s Trumbo is an intellectual ‘tour de force’ who will not be cowed those by those who accuse him of being the ‘danger’. At times Cranston’s performance comes precariously close to caricature, but he is self-aware enough as an actor to pull it back as needs require. The effect is to give the film a delirious dynamic that makes it hum along at a pleasing pace and while this film has a very serious point to make about a shameful period from America’s political past, this is no dry polemic, this is an entertainment that inspires, educates and provokes.

Trumbo proves to be a remarkable man. A wag, a wit, a searing intellect, a creative powerhouse, (both as an artist and an entrepreneur), and a man with a compassionate and steadfast heart, a quality that makes his accusers look as paltry while reminding us that today’s version of The Motion Picture Alliance, (Trump, Plain and their ilk), are basically nothing more than self-aggrandising fear peddlers that play fast and loose with the truth. Trumbo’s lesson is how to wear them down, show them up for what they are and defeat them.

As usual Helen Mirren proves why she is in such demand with her pitch-perfect turn as faded film star turned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper who uses her 35 million readers as a tool to threaten, manipulate and intimidate anyone who questions her motives as she storms and rages against those she considers traitors to her version of the American ideal.

Michael Stuhlbarg (The Coen’s ‘A Serious Man’) offers a sympathetic portrayal of movie star Edward G Robinson who emerges from the film as among the most tragic victims of The Motion Picture Alliance’s Hollywood witch-hunt. In real life Robinson was a cultured and gentle intellectual who described himself as a progressive social democrat. His affiliation with Trumbo and associates found him outcast and unable to work and facing financial ruin, he eventually caved to the Alliance’s demands and spoke out against his friends. Chastened and beaten, Robinson was allowed to return to work, albeit it somewhat broken.

Louis CK as screenwriter Arlen Herd (a composite character), Diane Lane as Cleo, (Trumbo’s’ courageous wife) and John Goodman as John King, “I am in this business to make money and score pussy and I am doing brilliantly on both fronts,” (a B-Movie Mogul who defies the ban against Trumbo and uses his skills to make some of the most iconic films of the time: Gun Crazy, The Brave One), offer the best of themselves in a film that reminds me why I like movies so much in the first place.

My pick for the best movie of the last year and a potent reminder that the hate and fear mongers of this world will only triumph if we let them.



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One Response to “Film Review: Trumbo”

  1. extremecloseupoff Says:

    Excellent writing, Andrew

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