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Rob Edelman: Trumbo

A film can be mediocre at best and, cinematically-speaking, it can be instantly forgettable. But given its subject and its take on history, this same film can be well worth seeing and contemplating. In other words, the film in question just may be a valuable learning tool.

One such example is TRUMBO, a new biopic that charts the story of Dalton Trumbo, who once upon a time was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. That time is the post-war 1940s. But Trumbo is no ultra-patriotic John Wayne clone, and so his career crashes and burns when he is blacklisted for his politics-- and his humanism.

TRUMBO does a workmanlike job of charting the basics of its subject’s life and times. We meet Dalton Trumbo, who is played by Bryan Cranston, and his family. His sympathies are conveyed when he supports the efforts of film crews who are picketing for higher wages. As he explains his world view to his daughter, he poses a question: If you had a sandwich and the kid next to you didn’t, what would you do? Would it be nothing? Would you hand it over but charge six per cent interest? Or would you simply share the sandwich? Dalton Trumbo is a fair-minded man to be sure, and he would choose to share his bounty. For this reason, in the eyes of some, he must be anti-American. He must be a villain.

At the same time, the Dalton Trumbo depicted here never shies away from controversy. For example, he publicly debates John Wayne, the megastar and famed anti-Communist. Plus, his lifestyle comes into play. It is noted that Trumbo “talks like a radical but lives like a rich guy.” In other words, should he somehow feel guilty for maintaining a certain lifestyle for himself and his family? In the eyes of certain hardcore leftists, is Dalton Trumbo a hypocrite for savoring his success? However, as presented here, his generosity and fair-mindedness-- and the fact that he is a loving husband and father-- are what define him.

The film also combines period newsreel footage with actors playing famous names. There are images of Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and other luminaries combined with actors cast as John Wayne, Hedda Hopper, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Louis B. Mayer, and Otto Preminger. And here, the casting is wildly uneven. Helen Mirren, who is incapable of a bad performance, nails Hedda Hopper, the rightwing gossip columnist. So does Christian Berkel, who plays Otto Preminger, one of the filmmakers who helped destroy the blacklist by insisting that Trumbo be given onscreen credit as the scriptwriter of EXODUS. But fine actor that he is, Michael Stuhlbarg is sorely miscast as Edward G. Robinson, who while never blacklisted did suffer career-wise because of his political views.

As far as I can tell, TRUMBO does an adequate job of reflecting on the politics of its era-- and its take on those politics is clear. It is pointed out that John Wayne fought World War II on a movie set while many of the so-called “unpatriotic” leftists served in the military. If you are familiar with the Hollywood Ten and the Hollywood blacklist, what is depicted here is nothing new. Cinematically speaking, there is nothing groundbreaking about TRUMBO.

But if you are unaware of the blacklist, TRUMBO works as a valuable teaching tool. Here is proof: Elle Fanning is cast as one of Dalton Trumbo’s offspring; she is all of seventeen years old and, at the question-and-answer session that followed the Toronto Film Festival public screening of TRUMBO, Fanning admitted that she knew nothing about the blacklist. How could such a thing happen in Hollywood? But of course, it did and, while perusing the film’s script, Fanning learned all about the blacklist. So despite its flaws, TRUMBO is a useful slice of Hollywood history-- and American history.

Rob Edelman has written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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