Jay Roach’s Trumbo is another example of how political self-righteousness can throw filmmakers off their game. Roach, the director of such trite fare as Meet the Fockers and the Austin Powers spoofs, takes on the story of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, mythified for being blacklisted by the film industry during the 1950s and then being resurrected by Kirk Douglas, who hired him to write the script for Spartacus (1960). Trumbo is an unsatisfying mixture of tones — from flat comedy to dull hagiography.
This is the same Roach who directed HBO’s Game Change, a similarly uneven and mostly not-credible satire/exposé of the John McCain–Sarah Palin campaign in the 2008 presidential election. Roach’s sense of displaying political consciousness is to make sure you know which side he stands on. It resembles the impertinence of those TV “journalists” and Internet pundits who think broadcasting their opinions and feelings is more important than reporting, more relevant than historical truth and accuracy. This slots Trumbo into a genre of attitude filmmaking, a peculiar millennial genre, as in the films The Butler, Selma, and Suffragette. That these social histories are all as trite as Fockers is less significant than the explicit, unrestrained partisanship that garners either raves or simple approval but rarely the disdain it deserves.
Attitude filmmaking contributes to the polarized atmosphere that makes taking sides easier, more popular, than commiseration or understanding. However, Roach’s emphasis on comedy — his non-seriousness — doesn’t lack for sanctimony. He has the baby-boomer impertinence that has led to the snark of what’s called “political humor” on Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central. When snideness is mistaken for smartness — or when it passes for an argument, as it does here — the lack of seriousness makes the product uninteresting and ultimately ungenerous: which is why Trumbo is such an awkward mess of historical legend and desperate wit.
Roach’s political and artistic crudeness — his insensitivity — is most apparent in the casting and performances that wind up mocking Trumbo lore. Roach seems to have lost a comedy director’s crucial sense of what looks funny; he doesn’t establish a credible tone for the film’s clash of famous Hollywood types – Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, and Edward G. Robinson are impersonated by actors who are ludicrously unconvincing. This is the most inadvertently laughable blacklist movie since Guilty by Suspicion. The fumbling of cultural history is not unrelated to this era’s ignorance of and indifference to the moral and political complexities of the past; Trumbo may simply be a cheesier example than The Butler, Selma, and Suffragette of contemporary Hollywood’s promoting the idea of historical equivalency: that today’s campus and street protests and Hollywood liberalism are as valiant as political positions of the past — especially the hallowed, hindsighted Fifties and Sixties.
#share#Bryan Cranston, who portrays Roach’s hero, is himself an icon of anachronistic idiocy. Essentially a vulgar comic like Roach, Cranston rides the popularity of his role in the morally ugly TV series Breaking Bad, which brought him a totally unjustified reputation as a great dramatic actor. (Simply put: Cranston hypes “subtlety.”) His cartoonish Trumbo pays back the bad taste of the “golden age of nihilism” by oversimplifying the Trumbo legend of the gruff, mustachioed, urbane social philosophe. Cranston and Roach seem to take their cue from the famous photo of Trumbo writing while soaking in his bathtub, cigarette-holder in hand. Cranston plays that image to the extreme; his Trumbo is like the little top-hatted man in the Monopoly game. Cranston’s bad mimickry recalls Meryl Streep’s Pankhurst in Suffragette tootling, “Defy this nation!”
Trumbo’s equivalent defiance comes in his famous House Un-American Activities Committee rebellion: “Many questions can be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ only by a moron or a slave.” Trumbo’s sophistry is so favored by West and East Coast liberals alike that Allan H. Ryskind’s excoriation of Hollywood blacklist mythology, Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters — Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler, published earlier this year, was largely ignored by the media. Ryskind, son of the famous Hollywood screenwriter Morrie Ryskind, tolerates none of the mythology, doggedly castigating Trumbo’s propaganda in the Writers Guild house publication (alluded to in the film’s final speech), and is especially hard on Trumbo’s personal politics:
‘The Trumbo legend — a feisty, funny, indepedent spirit who bucked Red-hunters and the Hollywood studios —lives on. Yet few of the Hollywood writers served Stalin so faithfully.’
“The Trumbo legend — a feisty, funny, independent spirit who bucked Red-hunters and the Hollywood studios — lives on. Yet few of the Hollywood writers served Stalin so faithfully. So far as Moscow was concerned, Trumbo, though he sold the party line with zest, wit, and imagination, was for years a stolid Communist conformist. There appeared to be no corkscrew twist in the Soviet line he wouldn’t embrace. He was anti-Nazi when Stalin demanded it, virulently anti-British (and virtually pro-Nazi) when the Soviets made their Pact with Hitler, an extreme advocate for unilateral disarmament after Stalin had blessed Hitler’s war against the West, and a bellowing warmonger when Stalin was betrayed by his good friend in Berlin. During the Cold War, Stalin had no more trustworthy ally.”
Although Ryskind comes from the opposite side of the political fence from Roach, his righteousness throws off his research and undermines his understandable conviction of the need to correct the covered-up history of Hollywood Communist sympathizers. Though prone to overstatement, Ryskind does a better job than Roach of contextualizing Trumbo’s fall and rise and showing how it still haunts Hollywood as a legend of individual fortitude in a profession not known for its principles. Roach and screenwriter John McNamara still idealize Trumbo as a totem of the industry’s ingenuity as well as of its moral and political evolution — from censure to apologetic remorse and rehabilitation. (While writing under a pseudonym, Trumbo won Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, on both of which his proper name was eventually reinstated. That was some kinda blacklist.)
If it’s true that we get the bad politics we deserve, Trumbo proves it’s equally true that we get the bad movies we deserve.
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Director-writer Josh Mond keeps his debut film, James White, short and pointed, yet this story of a millennial learning to deal with grief and privilege (both class advantages and the spiritual good fortune of family and friends) still bears the narcissistic over-indulgence reminiscent of Mumblecore movies. (Too much close-up facial anguish, too much Huck-and-Jim bromance with Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi.) But the film has moments of distinction whenever James and his dying mother (Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon) enact a pietà — two undisciplined personalities falling in sync. Arrogant and aggrieved, Abbott’s James suggests the autobiographical character James Toback was never lucky enough to cast in Fingers or The Gambler, and Nixon, except for an unnecessary political jibe, goes through stages of suffering that recall the great Harriet Andersson in Cries & Whispers.