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'Trumbo': Write and Wrong
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
03:34PM / Thursday, December 17, 2015
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'Trumbo' echoes contemporary bigotry with a look back at Communist paranoia with red-baiter Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and blacklisted commie pinko screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston).

Both fortunately and unfortunately, movies about bigotry and fearmongering in America always seem to be timely and appropriate. Hence, while director Jay Roach's engaging, wittily realized biopic about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo isn't especially artistic or cutting edge, it's dutiful, ultimately patriotic meditations in the cause of the First Amendment please our sense of justice.

Watching "Trumbo," we can't help but mull the current crop of political bloodsuckers looking to make hay of our worries. Is it just us smart people who know history repeats itself?

A reputedly accurate screenplay by John McNamara, based on Bruce Cook's biography, injects a semi-gossipy element to the doings, which issue a scorecard separating Hollywood's McCarthy Era victims from their accusers. So prepare for some of your screen idols to fall from grace. The unsettling paranoia of the otherwise prosperous 1950s is smartly achieved, thanks in part to judicious splicing with newsreel footage of the reprehensible hearings held in the name of the Red Scare.

The casting is solid, with Bryan Cranston doing a journeyman job as the title character, an accomplished writer, self-acknowledged armchair communist and likable egotist who rationalized no contradiction between his ideology and a love for his country estate. A nice scene, wherein he explains his take on social responsibility to eldest daughter, Nikola, who is worried about her daddy being a commie, helps establish the complex, essentially generous personality. But tough times are coming and Mr. Trumbo is, alas, a martyr in the making.

Via his trials and tribulations, dealt with in as high-minded and patriotic a fashion as we've come to expect from our cinema heroes, we get a refresher course in history and civics. The learning process compelled by Trumbo's struggles reminds us that democracy is an experiment, albeit a noble one, and thus by very definition a work in progress. Argument and disagreement, painful and disrupting as they may be, are integral to its success. You want definite answers and solutions? Get a king or a dictator. There are plenty folks currently campaigning for the job.

In other words, while implicit to the document, in framing the Constitution the Founding Fathers cautiously left out a heartfelt, knowing wink to all who would put the parchment to use. Had they decided to include it, it would have been placed at the very end, and simply read: Good luck!

Of course this is all lost on the closeminded, self-righteous sorts ruled either by profit or misbegotten dogma. Representing that ilk in this chronicle, with an unhealthy dose of anti-Semitic vitriol to make her all the more vile, Helen Mirren is Hedda Hopper, the noted gossip columnist and now, let it be wider known courtesy of "Trumbo," a rabid red-baiter. The queen of the blacklist, it is largely through Hedda and her minions' efforts that Trumbo and countless of his colleagues were denied employment for political beliefs both real and alleged.

Offering yet another angle of the intrigue between producers and writers that Martin Ritt's "The Front" (1976), starring Woody Allen, detailed, the tragic disgrace is reduced to its nuts and bolts reality: the need to make a living. The devious tool against personal conscience says, either testify before The House Un-American Activities Committee and name names, or starve. Cranston, ably personifying the persecuted artist, taps the suffering, echoing its inherent madness with "Marat/Sade"-like evocations from his makeshift writing den/bathtub.

Digging deeper than politics, the notions of human rights and the ideals of individual freedom, McNamara's screenplay tugs at the heartstrings, dramatizing how this blot in our history ruined innocent lives. A sub-plot concerning the personal and professional relationship between Trumbo and his pal, Arlen Hird (actually an amalgam of several blacklisted writers), empathically played by Louis C.K., wrenchingly details the human toll exacted.

It occurs that every so often humankind relegates a portion of its numbers to some bizarre, cruel catharsis, victimized like rats in a maze. Shame on us. We are abashed, but then, by that same token, amazed at the bravery and resilience shown by others. Diane Lane's Cleo Trumbo is the stalwart personified, standing by her man in a manner singer Tammy Wynette could have used as an example. We are further gratified when Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman), who'll have none of this bullying, demonstrates some off-screen bravery that ostensibly helped put a cap on the era.

You exit the theater ennobled, breathing the fresh air of indignation, another wrong eventually righted by the better half of our nature. You are now armed to discern what current, analogous clouds on the horizon deem to foist their evil, selfish will on us.

Pity is, we are the choir. For us it's a booster shot of those truths we already hold self-evident.

We can only hope that accolades heaped on this fine example of freedom of speech will attract those otherwise intolerant viewers who would benefit most from "Trumbo's" insight.

"Trumbo," rated R, is a Bleecker Street Media release directed by Jay Roach and stars Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren. Running time: 124 minutes

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