‘Trumbo’ and the Sad Simplicity of Advocacy Art

“Why do I have to explain everything to you like you’re a fuckin’ child?” grouses Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) to Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) about halfway through Trumbo, a movie so dense, it’s unaware it does the very same thing to its audience. And I’m not being figurative here — one of the film’s opening scenes literally consists of Trumbo explaining the tenets of Communism (and the legality of following them) to a child. That’s the moment when you might begin to suspect that, for all the smart people involved in its making, and for all the smart people it’s about, this is not a movie that’s all that interested in complexity — in either its storytelling or its morality.

Maybe director Jay Roach and screenwriter John McNamara are merely paying homage to the Hollywood it’s set in, and the black-or-white messaging of its lesser pictures. But whatever the case, it’s quite an achievement to take a story as inherently infuriating as the Hollywood blacklist and leave even as progressive a viewer as this one wondering why they painted the Commie-hunters with such a broad brush. In doing so, Trumbo boils down a complicated moment in both Hollywood and America’s history to a simple matter of good and evil. In other words, they’re doing what the witch-hunters did.

The abridged version, for those who don’t know, is that Trumbo — then one of Hollywood’s highest-paid and most prolific scribes — was a member of the “Hollywood Ten,” a handful of screenwriters and directors singled out, in the frostiness of Cold War fervor, for affiliations with the Communist Party. Citied for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer their questions or name the names of “fellow travelers” in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Trumbo served 11 months in prison, and was unemployable for several years afterwards, thanks to the film industry’s blacklist of those targeted by the HUAC. Trumbo supported himself and his family via a series of fronts and pseudonyms, cranking out quickie programmers for Poverty Row studios, eventually coordinating something of an informal guild to employ himself and his fellow blacklist victims.

Bryan Cranston in "Trumbo"

It’s a good story, and there are spots where Trumbo really works — primarily when Roach and McNamara focus on movies rather than politics. The logistics of Trumbo’s screenwriting operation, run as a “family business” with his kids and wife taking calls and making clandestine script deliveries, are fascinating, and I’d gladly watch an entire movie about the King Brothers, the exploitation outfit run here by Stephen Root and John Goodman (who’s already stolen the picture before he breaks out the baseball bat), the kind of guys who issue directives like, “So look, we bought a gorilla suit, we gotta use it.”

And there’s a great scene early in Trumbo’s prison sentence, when they tee up a faux-inspirational relationship with a hardened supply clerk, only to turn that entire interaction on its head. That character is granted a depth and life that’s starched out of too much of the movie, which skims through this story so glancingly that it can’t help but render Trumbo’s antagonists into cartoon villains. The well-worn phrase “preaching to the choir” is sadly apropos — because, of course, pretty much anyone who goes to see a movie called Trumbo doesn’t have to be told that Trumbo was important, or on the right side of history. What we could learn from such a picture is what those who silenced him were so scared of.

Yet there’s never any sense, even for a moment, of what drives them. Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper with all the subtlety of a viper snake, standing in L.B. Mayer’s office and hissing, “That’s exactly what my readers expect from a business run by kikes.” David James Elliot is a commendable John Wayne, embodying an icon without lapsing into caricature, but the script has no clear idea of who he was (the complexity of a deeply moral man crusading for the wrong cause is simply out of its reach) or what do with him, beyond taking a cheap, easy, and by now shopworn shot at his notorious lack of time in uniform.

Bryan Cranston in "Trumbo"

Then again, our protagonist isn’t allowed much complexity either — aside from a hoary bit of familial melodrama concerning his inattentiveness to his family (I’m sad to report a birthday cake is involved), the notion that Trumbo was anything less than a slighted genius only rears its head in a single (good) scene, in which C.K.’s Hird points out, “You talk like a radical, but you live like a rich guy.” The prickliness of their dynamic gives the conflicts and politics at the heart of the story a flash of dimension, but it’s fleeting. And Cranston can’t make head nor tail of the character, stuck playing the affectations and reciting big speeches, none worse than an acceptance speech at a 1970 WGA Award ceremony that functions as a clumsy curtain call for not only the film’s players, but its conflicts.

Mediocre movies can make for uneasy bedfellows, particularly for those who like to think about politics and art in anything beyond the barest terms — because when filmmakers willfully choose not to engage with the complexities of a matter, you wonder why. Here, for example, is a nutty notion: What if the blacklisters at the studios were right? What if the idea of radicalized writers smuggling anti-democratic narratives into their movies was a legitimate cause for concern, of either patriotic or commercial stripe? To be irrevocably clear: I do not believe this. But it was an argument worth having then, and one that could’ve been made within this dramatization of that period — so the film could have demonstrated some understanding of it, or anything else that might grant some humanity or logic, misguided though it might’ve been, to people Trumbo presents merely as cardboard cut-outs.

Advocacy art doesn’t have to be this small. Movies are a vast medium, capable of provoking thought and containing discussion and grappling with politics, but all too often, the voices guiding them choose to stack the deck. And that doesn’t do anyone any favors — because these ideas can withstand scrutiny and argument. They can take it, and, often, prevail. During Trumbo’s prison sequence, we get a glimpse of the facility’s movie night, the inmates cheering a WWII epic starring (of course) John Wayne. In the scene’s framing, writing, and playing, the simplicity of that movie is jeered at smarmily — which takes some nerve, considering the sledgehammer subtlety of the picture surrounding it.

Trumbo is out today in limited release.