An ugly story made its way through Facebook last week, forwarded from one account to the next. Shortly after the terrorist attacks on Paris, New York resident Gary Reloj was buying a Snapple in a corner store when he saw two drunk men harassing a Middle Eastern man. “I hope you’re real fucking proud of what your people did in Paris tonight,” one said.
Reloj intervened. He offered to buy sodas and snacks for the two drunks, which calmed them. Immediately after they left, Reloj and the Middle Eastern man hugged each other and wept.
It’s because of that story that I’m giving Trumbo—a clunky, yet compelling biopic by Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery director Jay Roach—a free pass for its mistakes. American xenophobia is as healthy as it’s ever been: At press time, the governors of 31 states have refused to admit Syrian refugees driven from their homes by ISIS, and cartoon blowhard Donald Trump is surging in polls. The time is ripe for a film about the cultural blindness of the Joseph McCarthy era, one that can be shown to high school civics classes. Trumbo, for all its flaws, might do some good.
For those unfamiliar with the true story upon which Trumbo is based, here’s an abbreviated version: In 1938, the House of Representatives formed a committee devoted to investigating American citizens with suspected ties to Nazism. After World War II ended, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) turned its ambitions to rooting out American communists, paying special attention to the motion picture industry.
Dalton Trumbo was a wildly succesful screenwriter. When we meet him in Trumbo, he’s already had a notable career, having written such hit films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Kitty Foyle. Bryan Cranston, nattily attired and rocking a neatly trimmed mustache, brings us Trumbo probably exactly as he was in the 1950s: smug and not fully aware of the irony of being a man who espouses the virtues of socialism while being one of Hollywood’s highest-paid writers.
The film wryly comments on Trumbo’s split identity. One character dismisses Trumbo as “a swimming-pool Soviet.” And in a subsequent scene, Trumbo’s friend Arlen Hird—a fine Louis C.K.—rips into Trumbo for being a “rich guy” who pretends he’s a radical. Cranston smirks at him and says, “The radical may fight with the passion of Jesus, but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.” (“Please don’t say shit like that anymore,” Hird says.)
Trumbo’s cunning is soon tested as the HUAC summons him to testify before Congress. Trumbo refuses to answer the committee’s first and only real question (“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”), and is jailed for contempt. After he’s released from prison, Trumbo can’t get work; Hollywood essentially makes him a pariah for exercising what we now recognize as a straight-up-and-down First Amendment right. He can’t even walk the streets without being verbally intimidated, like that man in the bodega.
Trumbo is not a great film. Roach’s direction is flat, stagey; he’s content to capture most of the story in static two shots. Cranston affects a tight-throated, affected dialect that distracts from his performance—why bother to imitate Trumbo’s voice, when most of the people seeing this film have no idea what he sounded like? And Helen Mirren’s role as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, while delivered with mustache-twirling evil glee, has only one dimension: Why does Hopper hate Trumbo so much, aside from her being kind of an asshole? Trumbo doesn’t say.
But these things don’t matter if the film is taken strictly as a cautionary parable. Late in Trumbo, the screenwriter warns his family to lay low: “We now work at midnight, in deep fog, amongst strangers.” It’s an evocative phrase, one that might soon all-too-neatly describe the modern-day fortunes of our own, imagined enemies of the state.
Trumbo (R): ★★★★✩