Unfriendlied

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TRUMBO breaks new ground, as a dramatic film about the blacklist, by featuring an actual communist as its hero. When Irwin Winkler was preparing GUILTY BY SUSPICION, he worked with Abraham Polonsky as screenwriter for a spell, but the partnership broke up over AP’s insistence that the protagonist had to be a communist and Winkler’s insistence that he couldn’t be. Prior to TRUMBO, only the BBC TV film Fellow Traveller had the guts to take an actual leftie as lead.

Put it this way — do you prove that the blacklist was an injustice by demonstrating that some people who were not communists got blacklisted? Would you be proving that the law against murder is wrong by making a film about an innocent man wrongly accused of murder?

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So director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara are to be congratulated for not making the million-dollar mistake, especially in a time when right-wing pundits in America have been attempting to restore McCarthy and HUAC to favour. They do offer excuses for those who were tempted by the Party — perhaps a stronger, simpler defense would be the one used in THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT — we don’t like what these people do, but in a free society they have a right to do it.

The film has been greeted by quite a lot of grumbling, not for its politics, but for its quality. I would group it along with movies like KINSEY and THE NOTORIOUS BETTY PAGE (though it doesn’t rely on musical montages to popular, on-the-nose hits, thankfully) — a biopic which struggles to craft a solid dramatic story out of its subject, or to find a satisfying cinematic style.

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A film on this subject cries out to be a film of ideas, since a writer’s life usually entails little action, certainly when he’s at work. To McNamara’s credit, he includes useful discussions illustrating the slippery moral slope one embarks on when trying to cooperate with HUAC, to the extent that Edward G. Robinson, chosen as main example of the friendly witness/traitor, can still seem somewhat sympathetic — he made the wrong choice, is all.

What’s rather lacking is strong emotional, dramatic scenes. Trumbo’s HUAC testimony is rather rushed through, which is unfortunate since it’s one of the rare occasions where he comes up against his enemies. Instead we have many, many short scenes in which he argues with friends, notably Louis CK, excellent in the role of a combination of various members of the Hollywood 10. Balking at crowding the screen with nameless pinkos, the screenplay is probably wise to conflate a few of them, but by name-dropping Dmytryk and other offscreen personae to no particular effect, and making the point repeatedly that there are ten of these guys whom we never get to see, the film is guilty of failing to have its cake and failing to eat it. There’s a feeling the real drama is happening elsewhere.

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As director, Roach is… OK. He was on surer ground with the AUSTIN POWERS films. He makes a terrible misstep in beginning Trumbo’s HUAC testimony as a newsreel, hauling us a way from what should be the most dramatic moment yet and putting the thing into the past tense before it’s happened, and the genuinely moving moment when Trumbo sees his name on the credits of SPARTACUS after years of enforced anonymity gets a flashy reflection shot it really doesn’t need.

That should be a simple moment for letting the actors act, which Roach is otherwise quite happy to do — whatever the consequences. Bryan Cranston’s mannered perf may reflect Trumbo’s real personality, but it still feels forced, especially, as Fiona pointed out, when Louis CK and Diane Lane are being completely natural opposite him. I wonder if what was needed was a more naturally flamboyant personality, or at least a character actor with certain built-in quirks, so that the eccentricity would seem innate rather than assumed. I love Bryan Cranston, and I worry that he’s painted into a bit of a corner — any TV show he does is bound to be compared unfavourable with Breaking Bad, which means he’s pushed into movies at just the time when the smart talent i heading the other way. And movies haven’t found the best use for his talents.

(Actually, if he took part in an ensemble piece like the magnificent American Crime Story, I don’t think there would be any negative comparisons with BB.)

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This movie also features some odd lookalikes and sortalookalikes and lookunalikes. The Edward G Robinson surrogate, Michael Stuhlbarg, bears zero resemblance to the man he’s playing, except when turning up with a beard in old age, when it’s rather too late. Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t try to sound like Robinson either. Dean O’Gorman seems to be putting all his efforts into sounding slightly like Kirk Douglas, which doesn’t help him sound like a human being or give a performance, and he still fails to call the star to mind with the force of a Frank Gorshin TV impersonation. Berliner Christian Berkel makes a good fist of the Viennese Otto Preminger, though my Facebook friend Matthew Wilder thinks the role should have been his. What that says about Matthew I leave to your own judgement.

 

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12 Responses to “Unfriendlied”

  1. Bryan Cranston’s mannered perf DOES reflect Trumbo’s real personality — and is what the film’s actually about. Very hard to say anything at all about politics in American films — if you aren’t Warren Beatty. Loved Cranston’s scenery-chewing and I’ll bet Abe Polonsky (who I knew slightly in his later years) would have enjoyed it as well. He told me that back in 1967 when he became hireable under his own name (Nelson Gidding was his “front” for Odds Against Tomorrow) he was in the Universal studios cafeteria when Edward Dymitrck came swanning by. “Hi Abe– how are you?” he called out to which Polonsky replied “Hi Ed — FUCK YOU!!!!”

  2. I wrote about Trumbo for a local newspaper:
    http://www.asianage.com/movie-reviews/decade-fear-146

    I think a HUAC movie would need to be an Altmanesque story. Ideally a sequel to Tim Robbins’ underrated Cradle Will Rock which deals with the HUAC’s Dies Committee in the 1930s.

    I absolutely agree that you need to tell the story of the blacklist with a communist as a hero, because it’s a cornerstone in America that being a Communist is illegal, even when it isn’t illegal by law. And Trumbo is effective for taking that route, albeit too little too late.

  3. Can’t work out if Dmytryk was being insensitive or courageous by trying to be friendly — it seems wildly eccentric to assume Polonsky would be pleased to see him under the curcumstances.

    “What an eccentric performance,” as King Arthur says of Tim the Socrcerer in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Maybe Kubrick was wrong and the one unactable attribute is not intelligence (an actor can research something and understand it and then play the guy who invented it) but eccentricity. You either have it or you don’t. Cranston has made a career playing ordinary guys, some of whome have ended up in quite extreme places, but they tend to start from a baseline of normality.

  4. Dmytryk may very well created a fantasy world where his testimony was not a betrayal. I’ve had a similar experience in my own field with just such a personality. They act as if they don’t remember.

  5. Precisely. Gadge didn’t think his betrayal was a betrayal either. And let’s not even mention Jerry Robbins — who ratted out Zero Mostel and went on to sort of direct him in “Fiddler on the Roof.” The operative term is “sort of” because Zero never talked to him. .He directed himself and Jerry did everything else.

  6. Jules Dassin reported that Elia Kazan essentially stalked him for decades, apparently hoping they could be friends which would retroactively make his testimony not a betrayal.

    I love that doc The RKO Story but I wish it were longer so we could hear more of Dmytryk tying himself in knots trying to explain his actions. He seems like he thinks he’s being consistent, and it’s hard to know from the cross-cutting with other accounts just what the hell he thinks happened.

    I love the story about the Kazan biographer who confronted him with the contradiction in his stance: “You say you only gave them names they already had, and that communist infiltration was a real threat, but if the threat was real, surely you should have given them every name you could think of?” Kazan FELL UNCONSCIOUS at his desk rather than deal with the paradox. A very solidly compartmentalized mind.

  7. Gadge turned ratfink because he was told that if he didn’t “On the Waterfront” (a “Right to Work” propaganda film masquerading as a left-wing cri de coeur) would never be made.

  8. The reaction shot is a bit too snazzy, but I can see why you might want to keep it once you thought of it. I wonder if they tried it as a long Brian big head without showing the actual screen? Like a developing reaction? A bit like Bob Hoskins at the end of The Long Good Friday, I suppose.

  9. If I recall correctly, there’s a medium close shot with no reflection, and then it magically appears in ECU. I think this sequence smacks of a storyboard come to life.

  10. Yes: “TA-DAAA!”

  11. Davids C and E, I’ve never read a better encapsulation of Kazan, naming names, and WATERFRONT.

  12. Thanks!

    I always like to mention that Robert Siodmak developed On the Waterfront and successfully sued when he was dropped from the production.

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