Film Review: Trumbo

by Mark Woodhouse

Rated M. Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning. Directed by Jay Roach.

Nobody has the right to tell you how to think.

Such is the abiding message of Trumbo. But not the opinion of most Americans in the 1940’s and 50’s. You see, they’re terrified of Russia and communism and basically anything that supports workers rights. So Congress sets out to deal with the perceived threat once and for all.

Enter Dalton Trumbo (Cranston), Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter and resident communist. Well, kind of. He’s a rich communist (whatever that means). But he sympathises with workers striking for better pay. So, you know, he’s obviously a traitor.

And as such, he must be silenced! Hollywood power brokers like Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) do all they can to banish Trumbo and his friends from the film business, placing them on a ‘blacklist’ and so ensuring they will never be employed to write again.

Thus censured, the film follows Trumbo and his friends struggling to support their families, maintain their relationships, and repair their reputations. But will they hold to their principles?

For a film about a communist writer, there’s not much talk of communism or writing. Instead, the focus is on the intrusion of the government into the private lives and thoughts of individuals. ‘Congress has no right to investigate what we think or how we make movies’, says Trumbo. Yet they do it anyway.

The characters all react to this imposition in different ways, some significant moral questions are raised, and the effects are felt by all. This is where Trumbo is it its best. Of particular note is Arlen Hird (C.K.) – who actually is a communist – who is stung by the events more than anyone. I also liked Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk), who brought plenty of dry humour to the film.

Cranston does a terrific job with the enigma that is Dalton Trumbo. A communist who doesn’t seem to care about communism (‘We’re rich!’). A gentle man who stands up to bullying (‘They have no right to do this!’). And, perhaps because the narrative spans several years, suddenly neglects his family, suddenly loves them again. But in the end, he seems to lose a sense of the values that got him into this situation in the first place. All he wants to do is win the fight and get his name on the credits again.

Because of this, Trumbo’s focus falls squarely on the issues of free speech and privacy.

This is timely. Debates are raging in America about the right to bear arms, and we in Australia look on bemused at the fight against Obamacare. But us Aussies have our own issues! We’re appalled that our government stores our metadata and enforces strict closing times on our nightclubs.

Do governments have the right to investigate what we think? Do those in power have the right to restrict where we work and what we say?

This film surely gives us the chance to raise these questions with our friends, but the answers aren’t easy to come by.

What should we do when our government oversteps the mark? Trumbo’s answer is that we fight, while the Bible maintains that we are to submit to the authorities God has given us (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2). But the fact remains that no government is perfect. Yet.

For we know that, whatever unjust or ungodly governments we may be under now, God is a God of justice (Jeremiah 9:24), and we look forward to a time when God himself governs directly in justice and truth.

The Verdict: Trumbo is a good story told pretty well. I struggled to connect emotionally, especially as the plot (and Trumbo himself) lost its way a bit towards the end. What I liked most was the moral conundrum, and the raw and real responses to it. 3/5

Trumbo will be released in Australian cinemas later this week. It is currently screening in the US and UK.

For more film reviews from a Christian perspective, connect with Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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