For Hollywood, there’s only one thing better than making movies, and that’s making movies about making movies. Holding a mirror up to itself is almost as old as the film-making process. From classics like All About Eve, In a Lonely Place and Sunset Boulevard that portray the often bitter decline and fall of the acting profession, to more recent takes on movie-making like The Artist or L.A. Confidential. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a tough place for actors, writers and crew members, all of whom seem to suffer from the cut-and-thrust of life in Tinseltown.
Now added to this list is Trumbo, examining the rise and fall and rise again of Dalton Trumbo who was once the toast of Hollywood writers before coming acropper due to his Communist views, and subsequent pursuance by the House Un-American Activities Committee who attempted to root-out and remove any public or influential figures with Communist sympathies from working in America. Known as the ‘Hollywood Ten’, this film examines the experience of a group of artists and scriptwriters who were hounded by the Committee, sentenced to prison and added to an official ‘blacklist’ that barred them from working for film-makers. The cost for many was public shame, loss of income, family and opportunity, as well as criminal records for contempt by refusing to recognise the constitutional authority of a Committee to control the thoughts of American citizens.
The solution for Trumbo and his colleagues was to translate their blacklist status into black market activity, writing under pseudonyms or crediting their work to other ‘safe’ writers which meant Trumbo earned two Oscars unbeknownst to the Hollywood Establishment – one for Roman Holiday and one under a different name for The Brave One. This is the story of that process, taking in the backbiting nature of Hollywood life and the numerous betrayals that occurred among this group of people as the pressure increased from McCarthyites desperate to expose and destroy Communist sympathisers, as well as the eventual reaction against the blacklist by leading all-American figures.
With several Oscar nominations of its own, as a film, Trumbo is a mixed bag; it’s an interesting story and one that gives a fascinating insight into the politics behind the scenes of a very glamorous and powerful place. But on the other hand, this is a rather ponderous affair, meandering through the story and never truly representing the very real fear and culture of suspicion this unhappy period of American history revealed. Trumbo can’t entirely decide if it wants to be a comedy or a serious drama, so the occasionally wry joke and jaunty means of conveying information sits uncomfortably alongside storylines about divorce, death and disgrace for those being persecuted, while the comedy actually takes away from the strain and danger these men were in.
Technically, the film produces some winning moments particularly in neatly combining original filmed and radio testimony of stars appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which dissolves into the modern actors also being questioned. There’s also some nice scenes where sections of films like Spartacus are recreated which give a nice glossy Hollywood feel to the whole thing combining the glamour and allure of the place with the fantasy element of it, which help to explain why men like Trumbo didn’t want to just walk away and do something else. It’s also, of course, a fascinating and inspiring story, one that reveals quite a dark moment in Hollywood history where the whole industry turned its back on those who had earned it a fortune, pitting friends against each other and subsuming artistic freedom to the prevailing political wind – and one that many believed was not just unconstitutional but also inhuman. Yet still, Trumbo and his colleagues found ways to subvert the system and work with key allies to continue churning out the work they loved (and a lot they didn’t) until attitudes began to change. The rollercoaster nature of that process comes across really well.
But other decisions in the presentation of this story undermine its serious message – the appearance of ‘stars’ is more of a distraction and a cheeky wink to the audience than adding to the story. It’s a difficult one because admittedly these people were part of the unfolding drama and can’t be left out – no story about Hollywood can entirely ignore the actors – but when David James Elliot appears as John Wayne or Christian Berkl as Otto Preminger it feels like a ‘ooh look a celebrity name’ moment rather than a progression of the story. Admittedly Dean O’Gorman is brilliantly suited to playing Kirk Douglas who rides in to rescue Trumbo from obscurity, but there is a major tension in the film between trying to outline the consequences of this dark time and showing the gleaming face of Hollywood – wherein for the most part shiny Hollywood wins out.
The performances are very good throughout; Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston is a complicated figure as Trumbo showing both his political firmness in not relinquishing his principles and his willingness to sacrifice friends and family for them. One of the most interesting ideas in the film concerns whether Trumbo was a true Communist in that he’d be willing to give up the assets he has acquired to create a better society, but as he loses much of his standing he chooses work over everything else, seemingly with the goal of returning to the level of his former lifestyle –an argument he has with friend Arlen Hird. It’s a fine performance but unlikely to surpass DiCaprio as Best Actor front runner or Fassbender for Steve Jobs (much the better actor in my view but unlikely to earn him a gold statuette this year). Helen Mirren is fine but unchallenged, playing effectively a pantomime villain in lovely hats – the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who had a personal mission to assist the Committee in exposing the supposed ‘traitors’ within. John Goodman is fantastic though as the ‘couldn’t-care-less’ boss of a B-movie studio who hires Trumbo to churn out rubbish. Goodman has some fantastic comedy scenes as he chases away members of the Committee who threaten to expose him and openly acknowledges the nonsense he peddles.
But overall Trumbo is an uneven film, unsure of where it’s going, overlong and slightly fearful of condemning Hollywood too strongly. Writer John McNamara shies away from turning on the studios, actors and workers who so clearly shunned the Hollywood Ten and by reducing some of the darkness of this period doesn’t properly convey the real cost to the people who suffered it. The glossy sheen makes the audience think that it’ll all come right in the end, so that the dark times, which in reality no one knew what was going to happen and these people were in very real danger, are sanitised so that Trumbo’s return to the fold seems inevitable in a way that it never could have been. Later in the film he preaches forgiveness for those days that undermines the purpose of the film which appeared to be to name and shame those who set Trumbo and his like on this course. Yet the lack of bite is the problem which, given this is a film about Hollywood itself, is unsurprising. So even retrospective criticisms have to have a redemptive ending showing that the American dream factory is better than ever – even writers today know which side their bread is buttered.
Trumbo was shown at the London Film Festival. The film goes on general release in the UK on Friday 5th February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1