Entertainment Movie Reviews 13 Feb 2016 Trumbo movie review: ...

Trumbo movie review: Powerful story about fighting against censorship and repression

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | SUDARSHAN RAMANI
Published Feb 13, 2016, 12:45 am IST
Updated Feb 13, 2016, 6:13 pm IST
A still from the movie Trumbo
 A still from the movie Trumbo
Rating:

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Dean O’Gorman, David James Elliott, Christian Berkel
Director: Jay Roach

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is Hollywood’s top screenwriter in 1947. However, his world is turned upside down on account of his Communist Party affiliations. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) wants Hollywood screenwriters, actors and directors to testify on their political convictions and rat out their friends. Trumbo’s defiance endangers his wife Cleo (Diane Lane), his daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and his other children.

After being blacklisted, Trumbo works under the counter on several B-movies and other films, even as the films he’s ghost-written win Oscars, waiting in hope that one day the blacklist will end and he’ll see his name credited onscreen again.

Today we may not know who Dalton Trumbo was, but we have heard of Roman Holiday, Spartacus and Exodus — films whose screenplay was written by him. Some of the people portrayed in the film, like Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson might be more familiar to today’s audience. Other obscure ones are recognisable to movie buffs and cinephiles aware of the era.

The America of the ’40s and ’50s is almost entirely alien from the one we know today: A time of hysterical anti-communism. In one scene, Dalton Trumbo and his family is accosted by strangers who throw a glass of Coca-Cola at him in rage. Another shows the family moving to a new neighbourhood, only to find that vandals have spitefully vandalised their property.

The film’s weakness is that it doesn’t conjure properly the paranoia of the times. Its focus is resolutely on Dalton Trumbo as the hero, which limits the scope of the film. We don’t get to learn about the polarisation that made communism so controversial in the era in which the film is based.

This lack of context was evoked well in Cradle Will Rock, the underrated ’90s film about leftist artists during Depression. At a later point, Trumbo is shown to say that the period of the blacklist was not about heroes and villains. Still, the film unquestionably casts Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) as the villain and, essentially caricaturises the HUAC.

Trumbo’s pace is quite fast and jokey in tone, similar to a theatrical production where actors enjoy putting on costume and make-up. The film shoots all the interiors and exteriors in tight close-ups and medium shots to hide the fact that the film didn’t have the budget for a full period setup.

Bryan Cranston, famous for his TV show Breaking Bad, is very good as Trumbo and Diane Lane is brilliant as Cleo. Elle Fanning is very good as Nikola Trumbo. Louis C.K. is also quite good as Allen Hird, who is, in some respects, Trumbo’s guilty conscience — the man who suffers for the hero’s actions.

Helen Mirren is clearly having a blast as a campy vindictive villain and it’s to her credit that her character, even if being villainous, has some deeper motivations. I am far more sceptical, however, of the casting of old Hollywood icons. Dean O’Gorman does well, but he is plainly not Kirk Douglas, even worse is David James Elliott who looks nothing like the great John Wayne. Michael Stuhlbarg is the best as screen icon Edward G. Robinson. But on the whole, the layers of make-up and costumes give the film an air of artificiality that doesn’t allow freedom to the actors.

One is reminded of Nixon or White Hunter Black Heart where neither Anthony Hopkins nor Clint Eastwood resembled their historical inspirations, yet they played their roles to perfection. Trumbo is great fun. It tells a true story of horrible injustice and shines a less glossy look at the halcyon “golden age” of American cinema. It’s also at heart a powerful story about fighting against censorship and repression — and that’s a message that is still very relevant.

The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society

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