Tag: Bryan Cranston

Drive (2011)

Drive (2011)

Neon, darkness and shades of grey fills the screen in a film that’s practically the definition of cult

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Cast Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene Gabriel), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard Gabriel), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino Paolozzi), Kaden Leos (Benicio Gabriel)

Impassive and supernaturally calm, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) sits with the car engine purring. In this five-minute window he is the get-away driver who will go to any length. Outside of that, criminals are on their own. Its one of the simple rules he lives by. He never compromises. Until, of course, he finds something worth compromising for. That would be his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), trying to make ends meet while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The Driver helps them – and feels compelled to go on helping them when newly released Standard (trying to go straight) does one more job to get out from under the thumb of his criminal friends. That last job is always the worst one isn’t it? Particularly when crime lords as ruthless as Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) are involved.

Drive won Refn the best director award at Cannes (after a huge standing ovation). It’s not hard to see why. This film is so overflowing with style, uncompromising cool and unreadable enigma it was practically a cult classic before it was even released. Layered in a mix of 70s and 80s chic – with its electric pink titles, John Carpenter-ish Los Angeles visuals and counter-culture smarts – it echoes cutting-edge crime drama from the punk years of Hollywood (it’s practically a remake of The Driver for starters!), by way of touches of Melville crime drama and Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Scored to a mix of ambient beats and electronic rock, it’s the dictionary definition of style.

It keeps you on your toes from the start. Its opening not only explores the Driver’s incredible skills (speed, manoeuvring, ingenious evasions and knowing when to go slow, he can do it all) it also sets us up for the whole film. Shot largely alongside the Driver in the car, we zip through streets and understand the determination (and hints of danger) under his impassive surface. That prologue is the whole movie in capsule – a careful wait, a sense of a fuse being list, touches of humour to distract us (the Driver’s precision with his gloves) and brilliant misdirection when his focused  attention to listening to a football game on the radio pays off in spades when we see his plans revealed.

Much of the first 40 minutes carefully develops the Driver’s surprisingly contented life: his happy acquiescence in the racing dreams of his fixer and mechanic boss Shannon (an ingratiating Bryan Cranston), who the Driver likes so much he doesn’t care that Shannon regularly swindles him; a soft, unspoken half-romance with Irene (Carey Mulligan, truthful and with a strength beneath the vulnerability); and a big-brother bond with her son Benecio. In another world this could have been a film where a loner learns to make a connection and finds love.

But it ain’t that film. The troubles start with Standard’s release from prison. Skilfully played by Oscar Isaac as well-meaning but essentially hopeless, Standard’s problems become Irene and Benecio’s problems. That one last job goes south – as they always do – in an orgy of cross, double cross and increasingly graphic violence. And the burning propulsive energy that lies under Drive, just like that purring engine in the films opening, is let rip.

What we get in the second half is dark, nihilistic and violent. Oh, good Lord, is it violent. Bone crunchingly, skull shatteringly, blood spurtingly violent. Because when gangsters get pissed off, they play for real. And it turns out, when the Driver finds something to care about, he plays for real as well. Refn’s eye for violence is extremely well-judged. We see just enough for it to be horrifying, but the worst is done via sound and editing (the Driver’s almost unwatchable assault on a goon in a lift puts almost nothing on screen, but the squelches and crunches on the soundtrack leave nothing to the imagination).

Refn’s trick is to combine lashings of indie cool and ultra-violence with a deceptively simple story that allows plenty of scope for interpretation. Drive has a sort of mythic, Arthurian quest to it, with the Driver as a sort of knight errant, defending a damsel in distress. But it’s also a grim crime drama, with a man at its centre who brutally kills without a second thought. This all depends on the enigmatic Driver at its heart. No other actor alive can do unreadable impassivity like Ryan Gosling – this could almost be his signature role. He’s ice-cool and professional, but also rather child-like and gentle.

Is he a guy dragged down by his own worst impulses? His jacket has a large scorpion on its back, echoing the old fable of the frog and the scorpion. Rather than one or the other, the Driver feels like both in one. A frog who wants to carry everyone over the river, but whose poor instincts and capacity for violence acts as the scorpion that destroys him. Where does he come from? What is his past? The film ends with a series of enigmatic shots that, to my eyes, suggest a supernatural quality to him. I sometimes toy with the idea he’s a sort of fallen angel, constantly protecting the wrong people like he has a scorpion curse on him. Refn’s gift is to craft pulp with psychological intrigue.

Drive is a very cool film – and Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling’s careful playing gives it a lot of heart, just as Albert Brooks’ marvellously dangerous gangster gives it a sharp, unpredictable edge. It rips its eye through the screen, with pace, speed and iconic imagery, all splashed with a pop art cool. But it’s not just a celebration of style: it’s also a dark romance, a tragedy and an exploration of a character who may be his own devil or may not even be human at all. Either way, its intriguing and exciting. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Argo (2012)

John Goodman and Alan Arkin say hoorah for Hollywood in Ben Affleck’s middle-brow, over-praised award-winner Argo

Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor), Kyle Chandler (Hamilton Jordan), Tate Donovan (Robert Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Amburn-Lijek), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Kate Bische (Kathy Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schartz), Taylor Schilling (Christine Mendez)

There is an art to telling a “true story”. Apollo 13 is a masterclass in turning a story everyone knows into edge-of-the-seat tension. For many people, Argo does a similar trick. It doesn’t for me. I can’t understand the praise for this middle-brow, conventional movie other than that its smoothly made blandness makes it easy to watch. I got so annoyed when re-watching it I threw my slipper down in anger, like the middle-class rebel I clearly am.

Anyway, the film kicks off with the US embassy in Tehran being stormed on 4th November 1979. While the embassy staff are taken hostage, six embassy officials escape and find shelter with the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). But how to get them out of the country safely? CIA extraction officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with the “best bad plan we’ve got” – set up a fake Hollywood production company, finance a fake movie, fly to Tehran, then fly the fugitives out on Canadian passports, passing them off as the movie’s crew on a scouting mission. The cover film is sci-fi epic Argo, and with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and famous make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) on board to give the project realism, the mission is on.

Argo won itself a lot of friends on the way to its Oscar for Best Picture. Why? Because this is a very easy-to-swallow, middle-of-the-road film that successfully turns an American foreign policy disaster into a charming heist movie with a happy ending. It faithfully follows the pattern of all heist movies: the crazy idea, pulling together the perfect team, the difficult rehearsal, the weak link who pulls it out of the bag at a crucial moment even the panicked “we do it anyway!” ending as the best-laid-plans need to be partially improvised on the fly.

In fact, for all its desperate attempts to look like a smart, political, 70s-style piece of cinema making, The Sting is by far and away the 1970s film it most resembles, for all it wants you to think it’s The China Syndrome by way of All the President’s Men. The film starts with an inspired story-board montage of the way Western interference in Iranian politics from 1953-1979 effectively ruined the country. But that’s as good as it gets politically. After that, any further attempt to engage with either Iran or America’s foreign policy gets completely abandoned. It becomes a simplistic rescue story stuffed full of uncomplicated goodies and baddies.

Hollywood of course loved it. Why wouldn’t it? There’s only one thing Hollywood loves more than a film that takes good-natured insider pot-shots at itself. And that’s a film where Hollywood saves the day. Argo does both. It’s a celebration of how Hollywood may be shallow, but when push comes to shove it delivers. Alan Arkin (Oscar-nominated for a role he could play standing on his head) coasts as a (fictional) old-school producer, selling the film’s mediocre punchlines about the Golden Globes, WGA and the uselessness of directors. Argo has a real “slap-on-the-back” air to it, the sort of gentle roast you might get from a guest speaker at an end-of-year party.

But of course you want to know: why did I threw my slipper? Quite frankly, Argo is a con. It starts with a burst of documentary-style realism, charting the attack on the embassy. The film uses a range of different film stocks, including home-movie style footage and newsreel material. It gives an impression of complete factual reality. But, like the movie, that’s just an impression. None of the footage we see is from the time period. It’s all glossily re-created to give the idea that we are watching something snatched from the headlines.

It’s probably the last time the film touches reality. Because from there Argo is a “true” story only in the broadest sense. Almost every single specific in the film is invented or repackaged. Most crucially, the film presents all this as a CIA operation from top-to-bottom. In reality, it was a Canadian operation, with the CIA providing assistance. Not the impression you get here. Even worse the end even has the team at Langley smugly smacking each other on the back and saying they’ll give the Canadians the credit for National Security reasons. Ouch. Not content with that, it also falsely accuses the Brits and New Zealanders of leaving the fugitives hanging out to dry. Ouch again.

I don’t mind most of the film’s other myriad inventions. Its fine to hugely expand the Hollywood stuff, as it’s fun. I don’t care that Mendez (who was Hispanic by the way – but I guess Affleck with a beard is the next best thing) was only in Tehran for 36 hours not the several days he is in this film. Building a bit of tension at the airport passport control – until that weak link proves his worth by talking fluently through the made-up film’s plot – is classic heist cinema. It’s cliched but its fine.

What really, really bugs me is that Affleck and team obviously decided the real story wasn’t exciting enough so – while poking fun at the shallowness of Hollywood – turned this story into exactly the sort of shallow adventure-fantasy that’s Hollywood’s bread-and-butter. In real life, there were nerves at the airport, and a delay to the flight. And there is a lot of old-school-conspiracy-thriller-tension that could have been created with that – if the film really was the sort of The Parallax View style thriller it wants you to think it is.

But that’s not bombastic enough for Affleck et al. Instead the ending is ludicrously overblown, stuffed with problems to overcome. The mission is off-then-on-again (this convoluted resolution requires a real-life childless man to have two kids at school). Then the Iranians work out something is up, and tear through the airport, guns waving in a race to stop the flight. Police cars race onto the runaway as the plane carrying our heroes takes off. And then I threw my slipper.

I threw it because it makes no sense. If the Iranian secret service knew about the extraction, they wouldn’t run through the airport. They’d RADIO THE CONTROL TOWER and stop the plane taking off. They’d scramble jets to bring the plane back while it was still in Iranian airspace. They certainly wouldn’t race cars onto the runaway – and I’m not sure a civilian plane would take off with an armoured car just underneath its wing. Nothing like this happened, or would happen. Its reality filtered through the tired cliches of Hollywood movies. It doesn’t even feel true.

Argo starts trying to comment on world affairs, but then focuses overwhelmingly on a minor victory in the middle of a disaster. The Iranian hostage crisis was a national humiliation that lasted years. But in this film, Affleck shows he learnt something from Pearl Harbor just like that film’s celebration of the Doolittle raid, this uses a small success to excuse a disaster. We even get Jimmy Carter bragging in voiceover that the crisis was resolved without resorting military force: the only reason for that was because the military strike Carter himself ordered was so ineptly planned it had to be humiliatingly cancelled mid-mission.

Argo doesn’t care. It’s a cuddly story about Hollywood saving the day, that starts with a critical eye and turns into a cheerleader for Carter’s disastrous policy in Iran. The hostage crisis is a tough story it doesn’t want to talk about (a brief scene of some hostages undergoing a mock execution only reminds us that the film can’t be bothered to talk about them). It repackages disaster as triumph and pretends to be a cleverer, richer film than it is. It apes 1970s conspiracy thrillers and political films but is only a faint shadow of them. Garlanded with awards, it’s competent-at-best.

Contagion (2011)

Laurence Fishburne leads the drive to fight a pandemic in Soderbergh’s outbreak thriller Contagion

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Marion Cotillard (Dr Leonara Orantes), Matt Damon (Mitch Emhoff), Laurence Fishburne (Dr Ellis Cheever), Jude Law (Alan Krumwiede), Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth Emhoff), Kate Winslet (Dr Erin Mears), Jennifer Ehle (Dr Ally Hextall), Elliott Gould (Dr Ian Sussman), Chin Han (Sun Feng), Bryan Cranston (Rear Admiral Lyle Haggerty), John Hawkes (Roger), Enrico Colantoni (Dennis French)

It’s a fear that has gripped the world several times this century: the pandemic that will wipe us all out. It’s the theme of Steven Soderbergh’s impressively mounted epidemic drama, which mixes in an astute commentary on how the modern world is likely to respond to an event that could herald the end of times.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a businesswoman flying back to Minneapolis from Hong Kong (with a stopover in Chicago for a bit of rumpy-pumpy with an ex-boyfriend) who becomes Patient Zero for an outbreak of a virulent strain of swine and bat flu that proves near fatal for the immune system. While her stunned husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is immune, most of the population aren’t. Across the world, health organisations swing to action – from Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) at the CDC, to Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) running things on the ground in Minneapolis to Dr Leonara Orantes (Marion Cotillard) investigating for the WHO in Switzerland and Hong Kong. As populations panic, conspiracy-theorist blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) sees this as an opportunity for personal promotion and enrichment.

Soderbergh’s clinical filming approach makes for a chillingly realistic piece of cinema realitie, possibly one of the director’s finest films in his oddly-uneven career. Soderbergh presents events as they are, laying out the film like a giant Pandemic board. Captions regularly tell us what day we are on from initial outbreak, as well as the populations of the various cities the plot lands us in. The film is shot with a documentary lack of fussiness, and largely avoids either sensationalism or the sort of Hollywood virus clichés of films like Outbreak. It also succeeds in largely avoiding heroes or villains (even the usual baddies for this sort of film, Big Phama companies, are shown as part of a potential solution not the problem) – even the outbreak is largely an act of chance, prompted by mankind’s actions, but there is no reveal that shady suits or military types are behind it all.

Watching the film today in the light of Brexit and Trump it actually appears strikingly profound and prescient in its depiction of the knee-jerk paranoia and wilful blindness of internet and media pundits who believe every opinion is equal and valid regardless of expertise. Alan Krumwiede (a slightly pantomime performance from Jude Law, complete with bad hair, bad teeth and an Aussie accent perhaps intended to echo Julian Assange) all but denounces the views of experts as “fake news”, claims his opinions on the causes and treatment of the disease are as valid as the expert professionals (all but saying “I think we have had enough of so-called experts”), uses his unique hit count as evidence for the validity of his (bogus) conspiracy theories and makes a fortune peddling a snake-oil natural cure which he claims saved his life (and leads to millions of people ignoring the proper precautions and treatments recommended by the WHO and CDC). 

Soderbergh shows that this sort of crap is as much a dangerous pandemic as the disease itself, encouraging an atmosphere of fear and hostility. At the time it just seemed a bit snide to say “a blog is not writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation”, but today, as websites spout up presenting all sorts of horseshit as legitimate fact, this film looks more and more ahead of the curve in its analysis of a public disillusioned and untrusting of authorities can turn their attention and trust to a venal liar who claims to be a tribune of the people, but is interested only in lining his own pocket. 

But then that’s one of this film’s interesting psychological points. If there is an antagonist in this film, it’s human nature itself. The “wisdom of crowds” is continuously a dangerous thing, as areas devolve into rioting and looting. The bureaucracy of local and international governments causes as many problems as the disease: even as bodies pile up in Minneapolis, Kate Winslet’s on-site CDC crisis manager must bat away furious lackeys of the State Governor, demanding to know if the federal government will cover the extra medical precautions. Announcements of public danger are pushed back until after Thanksgiving, so as not to have a negative impact on the holiday. The decent Dr Cheever, who unwisely leaks news of a lockdown of Chicago to his fiancée, is thrown to the dogs by the government who need some sort of scapegoat they can blame the whole mess on.

If our enemies are red tape and the selfish rumour-mongering of the unqualified and the self-important, acts of heroism here are generally rogue moments of rule-benders. A scientist at a private pharmaceutical company continues his work after being ordered to destroy his samples (and then shares his crucial findings about the disease with the world, free of charge). CDC scientist Ally Hextall tests a crucial antibody on herself because there simply isn’t time to go through the lengthy trials needed (needless to say Krumwiede uses this as further evidence that the outbreak is a government stitch-up). 

Alongside all this, Soderbergh’s detailed direction and editing chillingly chart the spread of the disease. Having explained carefully how it can be spread by touch, the camera details every move of infected people, carefully lingering for half a second on every touched item, with the implication clear that everyone else who will touch these objects soon (such as door handles) will themselves become infected. The film pulls no punches in showing the grim effects of the disease (poor Gwyneth Paltrow!) and the resulting chaos as the pandemic progresses, with social structure breaking down, chaos only held in check by mobilising army forces and imposing curfews and a national lottery for cure distribution, with areas off-limits for those not carrying a wristband barcode identifying them as inoculated.

Soderbergh assembles a fine cast for this drama, helping to put human faces to characters who often have to spout reams of scientific and medicinal dialogue. Fishburne is particularly good as a noble and reasonable head of the CDC, who succumbs only once to putting his loved ones first. Matt Damon is the face of “regular joes” as a father going to any lengths to protect his last surviving child. As one reviewer said the “undercard” of the cast is particularly strong, with Jennifer Ehle perhaps the outstanding performer as the eccentrically driven CDC research scientist. Cranston, Gould, Han, Hawkes and Colantoni are also equally fine.

Soderbergh’s film was a bit overlooked at the time, but rewatching it again, the more I think it might be strikingly intelligent analysis of our modern world, ahead of its time in understanding how new media and human nature can interact with government and society, and how this can lead to a spiralling in times of crisis. One of his best.

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla the only character this film is truly interested in.

Director: Gareth Edwards

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Ken Watanabe (Dr Ishiro Serizawa), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody), Elisabeth Olsen (Elle Brody), Juliette Binoche (Sandra Brody), Sally Hawkins (Dr Vivienne Graham), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz)

There is a lot of affection out there for Godzilla. I’ve never quite felt it myself, so I guess I was the wrong person to watch this film. This is a film celebrating the legend of a series of films from Japan about a guy in a rubber suit hitting other guys in rubber suits in a set designed to look like a miniature city. Gareth Edwards’ has directed an affectionate homage that at times flirts with being a more interesting film but never really commits to it.

In 1999, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is forced to watch his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) die in front of him in a mysterious accident at the nuclear plant in Japan they work at. Fifteen years later, his now grown-up estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bomb disposal expert, is called to Japan after Joe trespasses into the exclusion zone. There Ford and Joe discover there is no fall-out at the accident site – and that the accident was actually linked to a series of mighty beasts from prehistoric times who feed off radiation. The beasts are being investigated and monitored by a global organisation called Monarch – and they are starting to stir. Soon cities are at risk and our only chance of survival may be from alpha-predator Godzilla bashing the other monster out of existence.

Godzilla starts with a brilliant human interest story – a husband forced to sacrifice his wife to save hundreds of thousands of others. But around the halfway mark it loses all interest in its human characters, who become mere spectators to the mighty monsters hitting each other. By the final act, your interest in the action will depend on how much you can invest in a huge CGI monster hitting another huge CGI monster. With nary a character in sight, I’m not sure how much I could. 

Gareth Edwards does a good job directing the film. It’s intelligently and imaginatively framed and Edwards shows some wonderful restraint in showing Godzilla himself, gently avoiding showing too much too soon (the monster doesn’t appear full in camera for well over an hour into the film). In fact, Edwards has a lot more interest in showing the perspective of ordinary people watching the rampage, running or simply standing in awe starring upwards at these mighty beasts. It immediately hammers home the scale and awe of these creatures. Edwards often films from the perspective of those on the ground, with the camera craning upwards seeing the colossal beasts.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t lavish as much attention on the cardboard cut-out characters who are running around beneath the beasts. A fine company of actors are assembled, most of whom are relegated for much of the first half of the film to spouting exposition and the second half of the film to staring upwards in awe. Remember when Edwards made his breakthrough film Monsters? This film, sure, had monsters in it but it was a human interest story about two very different people thrown together after cataclysmic events. Edwards’ film worked because it was above all about people and their problems. Hollywood came calling.

And Hollywood of course missed the point. Edwards is a director who I think has some truly interesting work in him. Watch the scene as Cranston is forced to slam the safety doors on Binoche. This is a scene crammed with more drama, emotional investment and tragedy than the whole of the rest of the runtimes of Godzilla and Edwards’ Rogue One. Both of those films are well-made but derivative bits of geek chic, pandering towards the crowds by giving them parts of what they think they want, homage-stuffed retreads of other films that focus on bashes and toys rather than on people and characters. Edwards is becoming a purveyor of B-movie thrills, well made, but basically empty. 

That’s your Godzilla movie here. Well-made but rubbish. Full of spectacle wonderfully filmed, but fundamentally empty. A film that is careful about what it shows you and when, but is basically lacking any real soul.

Trumbo (2015)

Bryan Cranston is the put-upon idealist Trumbo under the scornful eye of Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Cast: Bryan Cranston (Dalton Trumbo), Diane Lane (Cleo Trumbo), Helen Mirren (Hedda Hopper), Louis CK (Arlen Hird), Elle Fanning (Nikola Trumbo), John Goodman (Frank King), Michael Stuhlbarg (Edward G Robinson), Alan Tudyk (Ian McLellan Hunter), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Virgil Brooks), Dean O’Gorman (Kirk Douglas), Stephen Root (Hymie King), Roger Bart (Buddy Ross), David James Elliott (John Wayne), Christian Berkel (Otto Preminger)

Hollywood loves to make movies about itself. It particularly loves to make movies where Hollywood is seen to be working on a higher moral plane. Trumbo is a film about the Hollywood Ten – the ten major screenwriters, directors and actors in Hollywood whom the industry blacklisted in the 1940s because of their sympathy for communism. Their leading light was Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a rich screenwriter who finds himself imprisoned and unemployable. Trumbo encourages the writers to group together and write under pseudonyms for cheap film studios – although the right-wing in Hollywood continues to persecute them. Trumbo cannot reveal his identity as a writer – even after winning two Oscars – until 1960 when Kirk Douglas gives him a credit for Spartacus.

Trumbo is a very earnest, straightforward and rather bland re-tread of a key moment in Hollywood. It’s made with very little imagination, and remixes the world of 1940s politics into something that bears more resemblance to the political situation now than it does to the time. That’s not to defend the House Committee on Un American Activities (HUAC), the Congress Committee that led the campaign against communist subversion in Hollywood. Their persecution of communists flew in the face of American ideals of free speech, and their ruin of the lives of innumerable actors, writers and directors not found to be ideological pure is appalling.

But this is a film that simplifies its politics into a world of good and bad. It also works hard to try and whitewash Hollywood. Watch this film and you would believe it was Congress that had worked overtime in order to ban certain Hollywood creatives from working. Not so: the black list was put forward by the movie studios themselves and endorsed by the various guilds. Famous actors and directors, such as Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, furiously dropped their support for the Hollywood Ten after feeling they had been deceived by the Ten about their Communist associations. The film mentions none of this of course, running with a Hollywood-vs-Congress story line and crowbarring in people like McCarthy and Nixon who had very little to do with HUAC.

The main Hollywood figures campaigning against the Black List are either faceless Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals types, or lip-smacking, practically mustachio-twirling gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played with ludicrous OTT camp wickedness by Helen Mirren). John Wayne is the only recognisable Hollywood “legend” shown on the side of these guys – and, while he does get mocked for his non-war-record early on by Trumbo, he is quickly shown to be a moderate pushing for forgiveness for those who repent (and is noticeably absent from the villainy of the organisation later in the film) – Hollywood doesn’t want to be too harsh on one of its own.

Roach’s political simplicity also affects the actors who found themselves in an impossible position. As Michael Stuhlbarg’s Edward G Robinson points out, writers can work under a pseudonym, actors can’t. I was reminded of when Elia Kazan won an honorary Oscar and several famous Hollywood actors refused to applaud him, as Kazan had “named names” (or rather confirmed names HUAC already knew) when pulled before the committee. Robinson here is rammed into the same position, denounced as a snitch and a traitor for confirming the names of the Hollywood Ten when many of them are already in prison. As at the Oscars, I’m not sure it’s our place to judge. It’s cosy to assume “I would have told them no” but who can say if we would have or not? And can we really judge those who decided they didn’t want to go to the wall for a communist cause they didn’t believe in (as Kazan and Robinson didn’t, being more left-wing sympathisers than Stalinists like Trumbo)?

It’s another part of the film’s simplicity that Communism is not of course interrogated any further. Watch this film and the political views of Trumbo and his colleagues come across as nothing more than a more idealistic version of Obama-ism. In reality, Trumbo was a Stalinist who pushed for non-intervention in World War II until Russia was attacked by Hitler. This is not mentioned or explored in the film at all. In fact, the complexity of these idealists climbing into bed with a regime soaked red with blood that was suppressing freedom across large chunks of the globe isn’t even raised. Roach wants to tell a story about good-old-fashioned-Hollywood-democrats being persecuted by nasty right-wingers.

Away from the film’s simplicity it’s nothing special. Roach does competent work and there is the odd good scene. Trumbo himself is basically a rather selfish arsehole, who judges everyone around him and frequently ignores his put-upon family. Cranston does a decent job as Trumbo – but you can’t help but feel his generous Oscar nomination was in part a recognition for his work on Breaking Bad. Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel get some of the best scenes as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger working with Trumbo on Spartacus and Exodus. Bizarrely, the film totally avoids diving into the themes of Spartacus– or exploring what Trumbo was thinking about when he wrote “I’m Spartacus”, that paen to unity from the pen of a man abandoned by everyone, surely a hugely personal line not in the original source material – and instead skirts only on the surface, ticking off events. It kinda sums the film up: a solid enough to watch, but basically forgettable, that never engages with the inner lives of the men it claims to understand.