In this writer’s humble opinion, Roman Holiday is the most romantic movie ever made. It sparkles with the narrative efficiency, emotional clarity, and flawless craft that one associates with the best of golden age Hollywood. Every moment is efficient and beautiful and evocative of the most alluring daydreams Hollywood can muster. It reminds me of the old school work ethos associated with early filmmaking. They didn’t consider themselves artists. They were craftspeople, and their job was to churn out a good product at an astonishing rate. The results, occasionally, happened to be great art as well.
The screenplay, which won an Academy Award, is officially credited to Ian McClellan Hunter and John Dighton. However, it’s well-known that this is not true. The actual writer was blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay and had his friend submit it for a 70/30 split of the profits. Trumbo was a self-identified communist and one of the first to find himself out of a job following the red scare in Hollywood. As a result, he took to writing screenplays under an alias, winning two Academy Awards by proxy and ultimately poking a hole in the decade-long oppression of free speech with the twin releases of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Otto Preminger’s Exodus.
Jay Roach’s biopic is entertaining and efficient in ways an old pro like Trumbo might very well have appreciated. It’s packed with fun characterizations of old Hollywood icons like John Wayne (David James Elliott, who doesn’t exactly look like Wayne but has the voice down pat), Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). All of these figures found themselves on one side or another of the ongoing witch hunt that put scores of filmmakers out of work during the 1950’s.
Thankfully the film doesn’t let the glitz and glamour get in the way of good storytelling. It is ultimately focused on the subject at hand: the cost of a dramatic affront to the first amendment that continued even into the last half century, and one man who felt he was such a good writer he could break it single-handedly — and turned out to be right.
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo makes all the sense. He is able to anchor a film with his charm and likability while also embracing all the quirks of such an eccentric public figure. Cranston clearly relishes the opportunity to play larger-than-life again. His roles post-Breaking Bad (a relatively quiet stretch including Argo and Godzilla) capitalized on his name but not especially on his talents. Here he’s allowed to ooze charisma like audiences have expected since his days as Tim Whatley on Seinfeld. At one point fellow blacklisted writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) asks Trumbo, “Do you have to say everything as if it’s going to be chiseled into a rock?” Cranston can own a big line so well we hardly notice.
The film’s primary flaw is probably that it’s too entertaining. When Trumbo delivers a speech about the tragedy created by the blacklist, it doesn’t entirely feel earned. The man’s year in prison is largely glossed over. The rage that drove many blacklisted writers in the era (evident in classics like Jules Dassin’s Rififi and Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York) is absent here. The refusal of conservative forces led by Ronald Reagan and John Wayne to listen to logic or respect the rights of their opponents is frustrating. The betrayal of former allies like Robinson (who initially sold priceless paintings to pay for Trumbo’s legal fees) is sad. However, the massive tragedy and lives ruined by such a monumental affront to free speech is not sold wholesale.
The focus here is on the ingenuity of these writers and the ways they worked through a collective national writer’s block. In a way that’s almost more appropriate. As I said earlier, these guys were pros. They churned out scripts at an astonishing rate and treated it like a day job. Some people built houses. They built stories. You’ll notice you never see anyone in this film staring blankly at a page. They’re always typing at a steady rate. The content of their work reflected this ethos, and one would expect they would want a movie in their honor to do likewise. Cranston, C.K., as well as Alan Tudyk as Hunter and John Goodman as B-movie producer Frank King, all have proven quip credentials. They rifle off banter like old pros who know a good sentence better than they know anything else in the world. Sentimentality for these guys is a lesser state of being.
One of the great ironies the film hints at is the fact that people couldn’t tell whether these writers were actually behind the films in the theater. How could Roman Holiday be a “corrupting influence,” even if it was written by a communist? If you can’t tell whether it’s communist or not, what does that make you? I suppose this is all well understood by now. Like most regressive movements, the blacklist and its supporters have found their place in history as a national embarrassment. All that’s left for us to do now is remember what happens when people judge without understanding, and to honor those who were hurt by that single-minded cruelty.
Ultimately, Trumbo is nowhere near as essential as the best films by its titular screenwriter, or scores of other works that raged against the blacklist while it was in force. However, it is a gentle, very entertaining reminder of the damage people can inflict when they choose to hate someone of another belief or ideology. It’s a reminder that, if being American or Un-American means anything at all, ideally it’s about respecting opposing viewpoints and understanding that human life means more than winning an argument. In that sense, the House Un-American Activities Committee could not have been more aptly named. At the very least, we must remain vigilant to ensure that the committee’s activities, and everything that resembles them, remain as un-American as possible.
Photos Courtesy of: Bleecker Street Media