Some people mark the coming of Christmas as that time of year when the wife and kids bundle up into their warmest clothing, fire up the car, and head over to Target or Best Buy or Kohl’s for the Black Friday sales . . . all while Dad sits at the table and says, “But I just carved the turkey . . .”
For me, the beginning of the holidays is marked by the advent of that tiny sliver of the year when films brimming with real talent and intelligence start to appear in the theatres. This year, there seems to be a nice bunch arriving to mark the waning of ’15. The other day, I watched the coming attractions for Carol and The Danish Girl the other day, both of which look excellent, although they prompted the man in the seat down the row from me to turn to his wife and say, “What? TWO movies about those people . . . ?” Good times!
An inordinate number of movies this year are based on true events. I saw Bridge of Spies a few weeks ago – a good solid Spielberg film with another good solid performance by Tom Hanks, although Mark Rylance easily steals the movie as Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy.
This weekend, I saw two movies based on fact: Spotlight and Trumbo. They cast a light on two shameful periods in American history. Both are highly entertaining and worth seeing, and I think one of them is great.
Trumbo takes on the story of the Hollywood Ten, a group of renowned screenwriters who had, at some point in their lives like thousands of other Americans, joined the Communist Party and were tried, jailed and blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. This is a fascinating period of history to me, and the film is especially timely today as we watch many current leaders of the Republican Party try to scapegoat an entire segment of the population for political gain, exactly like Joseph McCarthy did.
Dalton Trumbo, played with great charm by Bryan Cranston, was an acclaimed writer who refused to name names, paid for it by serving time, and then struggled to earn his living as a writer after friends and colleagues turned their backs on him. His courage and determination, the way he helped his fellow victims and dealt with the betrayal by others close to him, all play out in a highly entertaining fashion in the film. A lot of other famous people are portrayed here: those who aided Trumbo, like Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and schlock filmmaker Frank King (John Goodman), as well as those who opposed or betrayed him: John Wayne (David James Elliot), Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren, dripping with evil).
In some ways, Trumbo was lucky: he had the unwavering support of his family, especially his wife Cleo, played by Diane Lane, and he managed to find a way to keep working, first by using other writers as cover and then by inventing imaginary identities to hide behind. It doesn’t hurt that the some of the work he did during this period, films like Roman Holiday and The Brave One, were hugely successful and earned him Oscars that he couldn’t collect.
Director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara do a fine job evoking the period, slipping the actors into actual footage of filmed testimony and old movies. If the film feels a little emotionally manipulative, it’s still highly entertaining. There’s only one misstep, but it’s kind of a big one. In trying to contrast the relative success Trumbo found during the blacklist period with the intense loss others experienced, the filmmakers opted to invent a fictional writer, played by Louis C.K., and then heap every indignity upon him that they can think of. I don’t understand why they didn’t look at the real life members of the Ten who lost everything. The moments that depict the true conflicts in Trumbo’s life, between him and his wife, or Robinson, Wayne or Hopper, or even as he struggles to make a living by churning out one screenplay after another from his bathtub, are so full of good drama that one has to wonder why the presence of Louis C.K.’s character was even deemed necessary.
The other film I saw was Spotlight, directed by Thomas McCarthy, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer. A spectacular cast of actors, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James, play the members of the Boston Globe’s elite Spotlight team who in 2003 investigated allegations of widespread molestation and a massive cover-up by members of the Catholic Church. The power of the church in Boston is pervasive, and the Spotlighters might have never touched the story if not for the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) who assigns them the story. At first reluctant, the team members become increasingly obsessed with unearthing the truth.
This film gets everything right, including something that Trumbo falters a bit over: it never sensationalizes or veers into melodrama. The story of what happened is so gripping that all the actors and director have to do is play the truth. In scene after scene, as they interview victims, church members and the small time lawyer who is amassing a class action suit against the church, played to perfection by Stanley Tucci, we get one gripping scene after another of people whose lives have been destroyed by misplaced trust in their spiritual leaders or those in the legal profession who have tripped over their own values to benefit from the situation. Every investigator gets his or her moment when the realization of what is happening hits them in different ways: for example, Ruffalo becomes a restless tiger in his search for justice, while McAdams worries about what the story will do to her devout grandmother.
Director McCarthy strikes a perfect balance between the personal stories and the bigger story, and he captures the workings of a newspaper team with what I understand is great accuracy. Never has the act of combing through files been made so suspenseful. I was riveted throughout.
I recommend both of these pictures, but if your free time during the holiday is scarce, then Spotlight is the one not to miss.