American conservatives are forever whinging about “liberal Hollywood,” but really they have only themselves to blame.
When they were in the cultural ascendancy back in the 1940s-50s, they used their power — through groups such as the MPA (Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals), The American Legion and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) — to pressure the studios into creating blacklists that essentially ended the careers of anyone who had communist or even vaguely liberal views, or knew somebody who did.
One such victim of the blacklist was screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was hauled before the HUAC to be quizzed on his political activities and combatively invoked his First Amendment rights, only to wind up doing jail time for contempt of Congress. Once he got out, he had a family to support, so Trumbo devised some devious ways to write scripts under pseudonyms and skirt the blacklist.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||124 mins|
Eventually, some of those scripts wound up being hits and Oscar-winners. Titles included “Roman Holiday,” “The Brave One,” “Exodus” and “Spartacus.” Trumbo was finally able to come out of the closet, have the last laugh at his enemies, and live happily ever after.
If that sounds like the kind of worthy “one man triumphs against adversity” story beloved of Hollywood biopics, well, you’re right, and director Jay Roach has brought it to the big screen as “Trumbo,” with Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” fame playing the mustachioed screenwriter. Cranston effectively puts Walter White in the rearview, coming up with a sardonic drawl and debonair persona, punctuating his sentences with drags off his long-stemmed cigarette holder.
Cranston is supported by a good cast: Helen Mirren is fantastically vindictive as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, John Goodman steals every scene as pinball salesman-turned-B-movie mogul Frank King, while Michael Stuhlbarg (“Boardwalk Empire”) turns in a complex portrayal of Romania-born actor Edward G. Robinson, whose heart was with the lefties, although he eventually bailed on them.
Louis C.K., being serious for a change, plays the blacklisted writer Arlen Hird, but he’s in one of those awkward “composite” roles, based on several people, which distracts from the real history.
It was a dark period, and “Trumbo” pulls no punches. The blacklist ruined not just careers but lives, with suicides, broken marriages and friendships that ended in betrayal. What keeps the story zipping along is Trumbo’s own sardonic wit, finding some humor in even the bleakest moments. Still, Hollywood has confronted this history before in 1976’s “The Front,” which starred Woody Allen with a cast and crew full of people who had actually been blacklisted, and it’s probably the better film.
“Trumbo” just feels a bit too much like all those sainthood biopics that appear around Oscar season, with their sheen of “quality” and simplistic righteousness that defines the genre.
You know that Diane Lane, as Cleo Trumbo, is going to get that one scene where she stands up to her husband’s tirades and proves she’s a “strong woman.” You know they’re going to give a small cameo to a black actor (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbage) to make it “inclusive.” And you know that Cranston, framed in a halo of white light, is going to get a big, preachy speech in the last reel, with a cutaway to his family shedding soft tears. (Cue audience reaction.)
Yes, censorship is bad, yet that’s hardly just old history. Whether it’s the Chinese Communist Party demanding and receiving scene changes, the Pentagon reviewing screenplays or the politically correct left incessantly searching for microaggressions, the urge to bully filmmakers into toeing the party line is alive and well.
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