Wednesday, March 23, 2016

"Trumbo" Misses the "Marc" (But That's Okay)

We have the right to be wrong.” Dalton Trumbo

The Red Scare – McCarthyism – was not only a part of Vito Marcantonio's life and times. It ended his political career.

This darkest of chapters in American history has been brought to life with director Jay Roach's major theatrical release, "Trumbo."

Roach told the University of California Television show “Script to Screen,” that he was moved by screenwriter and author Dalton Trumbo's letters from prison to family, friends and enemies alike, and as a child, was taken with “Spartacus,” which the blacklisted scribe scripted under a pseudonym.

The director called it, “Possibly the most subversive commercial film ever made.”

Screenwriter John McNamara absorbed, first-hand stories of Trumbo sitting in a New York University film class taught by Ian McClellan Hunter.

The latter agreed to put his name on the blacklisted Trumbo's “Roman Holiday,” and picked up an Oscar for his willingness to sit with those who plot and conspire.

The other teachers to the class were Walter Salt (“Midnight Cowboy; “Coming Home”), and Ring Lardner Jr., like Trumbo, one of the “Hollywood Ten.”

When a friend suggested to McNamara that Bruce Cook's biography “Trumbo” was good film fodder, McNamara was dubious. “There's no sex, there's no action and it's period and it's politics and I'm thinking, 'How is that a movie?'”

"Counterpunch" assigned Margot Pepper to review “Trumbo,” figuring the fact she actually knew the subject as a child would provide an interesting, in-close perspective.

The reviewer laments the exclusion of Trumbo's time of exile in Mexico City, registers distaste for the fictional composite writer character, Arlen Hird, and is nonplussed with the sympathetic treatment afforded Edward G. Robinson, who “named names” during the witch hunt.
Dalton Trumbo Under Fire.

Pepper says “Trumbo” is a yarn that develops in a vacuum.

The review suggested that  the film doesn't shy away from saying “communism,” and even deigns to suggest its kinship to kindness and sharing, but, she says, the film evades the why and wherefore of the blacklist in an old “Hollywood sleight of hand” left over from the same dark days.

But in the end, Pepper concludes that the the film is a good thing: “Just as Trumbo broke the blacklist by signing his name to the screenplays for 'Spartacus' and 'Exodus,' it is likely that Roach and McNamara have, with 'Trumbo,' broken the blacklist against Hollywood movies sympathetic to the spirit of communism.”

A First Amendment absolutist, Rep. Vito Marcantonio defended the rights of communists to assemble, fulminate, organize and publish throughout the McCarthy era. It did not advance his career.

Marc was ensconced in Congress as the Hollywood Ten issue rose (sunk?) to prominence in 1947. He came to their defense in a most public way.

Roach, who has an uncommon director's empathy for screen scripters, said the writers in Hollywood “were the first ones thrown under the bus to make the studios look more All-American.”

The writers, McNamara suggested, never had a chance as “Washington was the hammer and Hollywood the willing anvil. Each needed the other to extract maximum punishment.”

The House voted 240 to 15 when citing Trumbo for contempt of Congress with like tallies ensuing for the other scribes suspected of writing Marx and Lenin into the commercial projections of the Hollywood Dream Machine.

Dalton Trumbo
So they were not completely alone.

  A Nov. 25, 1947 “New York Times,” article covering the contempt citation proceedings quotes Marcantonio “American Laborite of New York” attacking the House UnAmerican Activities Committee process as “unconstitutional.”

Along with those who felt Alva Bessie should have been represented, or that a more forceful role needed to be carved out for Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis), we might ask Where's Marc in film?

Staging a moment of support from a staunch congressional advocate might have spread another layer of nuance over the filmic tragedy.

But McNamara was adapting a specific book about Trumbo and his times, not the entire history of man and era.

As such, McNamara has done the adapter's job of distilling persons, currents, opposing views relationships public and personal, in a superior fashion; opting for the rule which says biopics are better when they avoid tackling an entire life, and focus instead on one important chapter into which swatches of the past or future can be pulled with a little expository dialogue.

He had but 127 airy pages, or so, to work with and, as in all adaptation projects, not everything "made the cut."

“Trumbo,” is a political movie and Roach/McNamara took a bold leap in getting a story about an accused communist casted, financed, and filmed.

As reward they came in for no small amount of criticism. Stories that recount crucial political history are somewhat battlegrounds over content and direction, battlegrounds over whose history gets told.

Those clashes are especially contentious when a good number of people from the era are still alive and walking about.

The director/writer team's triumph is not that their final draft satisfied all viewpoints on the matter at hand, but that they raised the subject at all, so that distinct interpretations might inform new discussion on a recently moribund topic.

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