Wednesday, 30 March 2016

JIM HARRISON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Jim Harrison is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It is pretty much as I wrote it (though a couple of literals have snuck in) which surprised me slightly as it was a bit longer than requested, but after trimming I didn't think I could lose any more.

I was fascinated by the whole Hemingway thing, perhaps because by some fine synchronicity, I'm reading Paul Hendrickson's wonderful Hemingway's Boat right now. I was struck by how closely Harrison echoed Gertrude Stein, but there is a further comparison that struck me this afternoon, too late to include: Hemingway had more discipline than Harrison, perhaps more restraint. I think it's telling Harrison may have, if anything, lived the more indulgent life, but remained married all his life. There's probably a good story to be written about all the shenanigans that went on around The Missouri Breaks and 92 In The Shade (Tom McGuane's novel which he directed himself).

Of course I don't believe Harrison is the writer Hemingway was. In fact one of the first comments on the Guardian's web site was someone saying they liked Harrison the man more than Harrison the writer, and I tend to agree. He is a tremendous interview--dropping in quotation of and reference to all sorts of writers and obviously completely enraptured with the art. He may have come off as raw, but he was definitely cooked. I probably should have mentioned he was, for a time, the poetry editor of The Nation; for a guy who, when asked by an interviewer for the (very New York) Paris Review if it was a problem to be a 'Michigan writer,' replied that 'the Upper East Side of New York was constitutionally the most provincial place I’d ever been,' that seemed a pretty neat trick.

I hadn't read Harrison in a while, but I pulled a copy of Letters For Yesenin out of a box and really felt the energy and despair in the poems. I suspect he wrote himself out of that.  He was a creature of his indulgence; just track his pictures in reverse. It was some life. And you can also take his food indulgence seriously: I still use his recipe for making meatballs and spaghetti sauce, and it's damn good. Needs a powerful lot of wine to go with it too. RIP Jim Harrison.

Friday, 25 March 2016

GARRY SHANDLING: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY


My obituary of Garry Shandling is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. As I said this morning on Twitter, Larry Sanders is probably my favourite comedy show ever, and the obit was pretty easy to write: I knew how great it and he were and how I wanted to explain that. I would've liked more room to quote some of his lines, but his wasn't the kind of comedy to be remembered with one-liners, that was part of the story.

In fact the hardest part of writing it was constantly typing Larry Sanders when I meant Garry Shandling! The story ran pretty much as written: there's also a link to the excrusiatingly funny Ricky Gervais interview, whose explanation got rewritten slightly confusingly: Shandling wanted to do his interview first, but they did Gervais' filming first, which got them off on the wrong foot, as it were. They also cut, for some reason, the mention that Shandling had been Carson's favourite guest-host, until he had to stop doing that when his own debuted in 1986, which is a big part of why Jay Leno, who more or less took his place guest-hosting, wound up with Carson's spot when he retired.

I would have loved some space to track his influence in more detail (Apatow, for example, got his first break as a writer for Sanders). And I would have liked to spend a little more time of his Buddhism. There was a funny story about his bumping into Conan O'Brien in first class flying back from Hawaii, as one does, where he had gone to meditate on the Buddha, as one does.  And another about his telling a joke to the Dali Lama, which the Lama doesn't get. Or his basketball games. But go to you tube and watch the Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee interview with Seinfeld.  They're discussing when David Brenner died. Jerry says his first thought was 'there goes a lot of material', which Garry finds incredible. The talk about Robin Williams' suicide and the quotes I used follow. Shandling boxed regularly, he hooped on Sundays, and he died of a sudden heart attack at 66. RIP

Thursday, 24 March 2016

BASEBALL DIPLOMACY IN HAVANA HAPPENED BEFORE: THE LOST 1999 FT ARTICLE

President Obama's trip to Havana to watch the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Cuban national team was a huge news story, with the predictable condemnation from the right. Cuba remains a contentious issue in the USA, just as the US remains contentious in Cuba. But the visit reminded me that this baseball diplomacy had actually begun March 28, 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles went to Havana and played the Cubans, and another Democratic President was being vilified for allowing it to happen. Note it did not happen again for 17 years. 

Of course the real story this time was Obama, not the baseball team, going to Cuba. In retrospect it's an interesting study in role reversal: right-wing presidents can indulge in rapprochement with enemies that they would condemn were it done by a Democrat; Democrats like Clinton can indulge in financial or welfare 'reform' that would draw weak howls from the center were a Republican to try them. Certainly Obama looked a lot more relaxed doing the wave at the stadium with Raul Castro, than either then-baseball commissioner Bud Selig or Oriole owner Peter Angelos had looked with Fidel in 1999. Note too, there aren't any luxury boxes in Havana's biggest stadium.

In March, 1999 I was in Melbourne, Florida, where the story was big news, with the invective often being the lead. The piece I wrote was commissioned by the Financial Times' sports page, meant to appear on Friday 26th, two days before the game. But it was killed when their news pages decided to send a staff reporter to Havana for the Saturday paper. The perspective was somewhat different, and the history somewhat absent. 

The Orioles won that game 3-2, but the game's star was Jose Contreras, who came in to pitch in the second inning, after Jose Ibar allowed a two-run homer by Charles Johnson. Contreras pitched eight innings of two-hit ball and struck out ten; scouts noticed. He would also start the return match in Baltimore; he got shelled but Cuba won that 12-6. In 2002 Contreras left the Cuban national team at a tournament in Mexico; he was signed immediately by the New York Yanquis. 


BASEBALL DIPLOMACY: CAN THE US AND CUBA STOP PLAYING HARDBALL?

Last season Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both smashed the Major League Baseball home run record of 61 set by Roger Maris in 1961. This Sunday, a different sort of mark, two years older than Maris’, will fall, when the Baltimore Orioles take the field in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano against a Cuban national selection. It will be the first time in forty years that a major league team has visited Cuba, the first time since the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds played an exhibition game there in 1959, only weeks after Fidel Castro's revoilution had ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista, the American-backed man in charge of keeping the island safe for sugar companies and mafia casinos. 
 
The game will mark the first major break in the embargo the United States has maintained against Cuba since 1962. Set up under pressure from Cuban exiles in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, it prohibits trade and even travel between the two countries, less than 90 miles apart. This series (the Cubans will play a return match in Baltimore in May) has already been compared with Nixon’s “ping pong diplomacy” which launched the normalizing of US relations with China. But Bill Clinton’s “baseball diplomacy” has met with fierce opposition in South Florida, where Cubans exert considerable political clout in an electorally crucial state.

Protestors picketed two of the Orioles’ spring training games in Fort Lauderdale, both against Miami’s team, the Marlins. Fewer than 200 people demonstrated against the games, but they generated a hugely disproportionate media barrage. Miami Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart likened the Orioles trip to travelling to Berlin to take part in the 1936 Olympics, or going to play in apartheid South Africa. “It would be rightfully seen by history as shameful.”

Since the agreement was announced in early March, relations between the countries have done anything but improve. Cuba cut telephone links to the US in retaliation for bills unpaid by US phone companies, and the US protested the harsh sentences meted out to four Cuban dissidents under recently enacted sedition laws. But to the baseball organisers, this has nothing to do with politics. 
 
This is really about the common ground that the two peoples have, apart from any positions taken by government entities,” said Orioles Executive Vice-President John Angelos. Angelos’ father Peter, owner of the team, spent three years laying the groundwork for the series. It’s been a priority for Peter Angelos for years,” says Orioles press director John Maroon. “These are two countries that share a passion for baseball.”

Baseball is America’s national pastime, but it may be Cuba’s national obsession. Fidel Castro himself was a pitcher for the law faculty at the University of Havana; legend has it he was scouted by the Washington Senators, which prompted the story about the two old baseball scouts discussing how different history might have been had Castro become a baseball player. One cogitates, then says, 'no, it wouldn't have made a difference. Washington were terrible then, and he wasn't good enough to change that.' Baseball's world view can be rather narrow.
 
When America’s National League began play in the 1870s, the Troy (New York) Haymakers boasted two Cuban players. In the apartheid years when MLB was segregated, light skinned Cubans escaped the colour bar, while others played their way into baseball’s Hall of Fame in America’s Negro Leagues. More recently, Boston’s Luis Tiant and Cincinnati’s Tony Perez became heroes in their adopted communities.
Although the flow of Cuban stars dried up following the embargo, current sluggers like Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmiero were among the generation brought to the US as infants fleeing Castro. Keeping their best players at home, Cuba's own teams, meanwhile, dominated amateur play, including the Olympics. 

International play allowed some defectors to prove the current crop of Cubans were as good as ever.
Livan Hernandez, who fled the national team during a tournament in Mexico, became the most valuable player in the Marlins’ World Series championship in 1997. His brother Orlando, confined to Cuba after Livan’s defection, nearly died escaping the island in a home-made boat. Two years later, he was winning World Series games for the New York Yankees.

Though their journeys are held up as examples of those seeking 'freedom' in America, ironically neither of the Hernandez brothers actually established residency in the United States, preferring other Caribbean islands whose players remain outside the major league baseball's amateur draft. Avoiding the US meant they were free to sign with the highest bidding team.

The Cuban team that plays the Orioles reportedly will not include players from the island’s top four teams, who are still involved in the National Series playoffs. But it will boast third-baseman Omar Linares, who has been considered the best baseball player outside the major leagues for the last decade, and is still only 28. Scouts will get their first chance to see Linares play with a wooden bat, rather than the lighter and stronger aluminium generally used in amateur play. In a major concession, Cuba agreed to the visitors’ choice of weapons. Their National Sports Institute (INDER) was quick to point out this gave the Orioles a decided advantage.

But the big story, of course, is outside the ballpark. The prospect of seeing Havana from the inside has attracted over 500 accredited media. The game will be televised nationwide in the US by the cable sports giant ESPN. “We’ve organised seven charter planes, and expedited visas with the cooperation of both governments,” explains MLB Vice-President Tim Brosnan, who points out the series is just another step in baseball’s expanding international expanding activity. For the innately conservative lords of the game, this is a commercial opportuinity, not a political statement.  “We have exhibition games in Mexico and the Dominican Republic,” he says, “and for the first time two teams will open their official season outside the US or Canada, in Monterrey Mexico. We’re also close to finalizing a season opener next year in Japan.”

Cuba has played, and usually beaten, American amateur teams for decades. But their success in Olympic and World Championship events would be threatened if MLB’s plans to allow its players to represent their home countries in international play come to fruition. “At very least, the top players from the minor leagues will play in the Sydney Olympics,” says Brosnan. 
 
In the days before the revolution, Havana had a top minor league team in the International League. In 1959, the Sugar Kings won the Junior World Series. Felo Ramirez broadcast that series then, and now does Spanish radio broadcasts for the Marlins.  Like many who left Cuba in the early days, he's against the series.  “I don’t like it that the Orioles play in Cuba,” he says. “If not for Castro, Havana would have a team in the major leagues right now. We wouldn’t need exhibitions.”

In Miami the spectrum of opinion extends only as far as others, like Miami Herald writer Robert Steinbank, who favour the series only  because they sees the temptations of capitalism as the ultimate threat to Castro. But even Steinbank points out the game “reveals the limits of Miami’s Cubans to steer US policy.”Even so, on Sunday as 50,000 Cuban fans fill the stadium in Havana, in Miami many will echo the frustration of Tony Perez, now Vice President of Community Relations for the Marlins. “It’s done,” he says, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

ROB FORD: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Rob Ford, the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto, is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here . It ought to be in the paper paper Thursday. It was a difficult one to write for a number of reasons. First was trying to explain the nature of local politics in Canada in general and Toronto in particular; Ford was a product of the resentment of suburban Etobicoke to the city slickers of Toronto, or at least he played on that. There was the implied parallel with Marion Berry, which I left behind in the end: both were responsive to their core communities, but I couldn't make the DC situation a smooth comparison. And finally there was Ford himself, whose antics put Berry's to shame. Ford seemed to have little sense of restraint: his self-protection was mostly a bullying tendency after the fact. There were stories to tell, and I had to leave a lot of them out--not just the personal antics but also the scandals in city government, some relatively small, but the fact that they occurred with such regularity was incredible.

I did drop my pointing out the oxymoronic quality of the name of the Progressive Conservative party, and didn't mention the irony that Ford was succeeded by a PC candidate named John Tory. More importantly I was tempted to note the Canadian-ness of Ford's troubles: I did call it 'uniquely Canadian' to use a 'drunken stupor' to rationalise or excuse crack use, but I wasn't sure we could make that case (case of beer?). But his presentation at his inauguration by Don Cherry would explain a lot to anyone who understands the bizarre centrality of Cherry to Canadian life. Take a gander at Cherry's outfit that he wore to the ceremony; there is a gaucherie that is endured but somewhat admired in Canada, who after all live with versions of it rampant in their neighbour to the south.

Ford became a celebrity, for all the wrong reasons, in the USA...appearing on talk shows where he would be skewered predictably, and being played hilariously by Chris Farley. It may have reinforced some American stereotypes of the Bob & Doug McKenzie variety about our neighbour to the north.

We had a little trouble with his encounter with city councillor Olivia Gondel, who claimed Ford told her he wanted to 'eat your pussy'. Ford's denial was classic: "she claims I said I want to eat her pussy. I've never said that in my life to her...I'm happily married. I've got more than enough to eat at home." It was too brilliantly deluded to leave out, but I wrote it as was, knowing it would have to be euphemised. I suggested simply putting it in generalities (as they did) but leaving the 'I've got more than enough to eat at home', which would imply the rest.

Of course Ford's marriage wasn't that happy, though the drugs and booze probably played a part in that. There were three times police were called out, though no charges were ever filed. I think the Trump analogy might be a better one than the Berry...he was a spoiled rich kid, perhaps resentful of the 'society' types whose world he couldn't necessarily enter. What drove him to the massive indulgences, I can't swear, but there's a Nero-like quality to him as well, and an almost child-like softness to his bloated adult self. RIP.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

HARLAN COBEN'S FOOL ME ONCE

If I'm counting right, this is Harlan Coben's 28th novel, and he has been writing thrillers longer than his Myron Bolitar series, thrillers marked by their everyday settings and their consistent twists of plot and character which have made them so successful. Fool Me Once is a perfect example of what makes his work so appealing, and the title is a pretty good warning of what the reader can expect from the author, yet it's also a tale whose emotional load is weighted carefully and one with something much darker than a shooting behind it.

The story begins at the funeral of Maya Burkett's husband Joe, shot by would-be muggers as the two of them walked in Central Park. Maya has an uneasy relationship with the Burkett family, extremely wealthy and aloof. She never thinks of herself as a Burkett; she's Maya Stern, who, as a helicopter pilot in Iraq took part in a rescue mission that resulted in the killing of civilians. She was identified on a whistle-blowing website, and took an honourable discharge from the Army, but she both misses the service and is haunted by nightmares of that fatal day. To make things worse, Maya's sister Claire was murdered, while Maya was deployed in the Middle East. Now she's determined to solve her husband's murder, but, as her widowed brother-in-law reminds her: death seems to follow her around.

Then, on a security camera hidden in a picture frame, Maya sees Joe playing with their daughter. From this beginning Coben weaves a story that has a number of familiar tropes: misadventures in prep school, electronic surveillance, protective wealthy families using their influence, but links them together is some surprising ways. Often just when you think you've caught up to the plot, it shifts, but part of his genius is that you may well have been right, but still not quite there. There are also the everyday touches familiar from Coben's work, the way pressures of child care, or a kid's bullying soccer coach, impact on a character's ability to deal with the increased stress of trying to solve a murder.

When you're writing a story full of twists, nothing is ever the way it seems, and Coben is brilliant in the way he reminds you of this with small references to ambiguities, to yin and yang, things like the opposite interpretations of the Second Amendment, to a school overlooking a graveyard, or receiving lines at weddings and funerals. Reminders that things have different meanings at different times.

I won't give away any spoilers, but the climax of the story not only ties things together, but does it in a way that is chilling and maybe darker than anything I've read from Coben. There is a coda, some of which was necessary, but some of which to my mind goes a little too far in the opposite direction of the brilliant finish. With the success of the film of Tell No One I'm always amazed more Coben isn't committed to film—this one I was seeing in my head is brought to a moving ending that stuns and saddens.

Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben
Century, £18.99, ISBN 9781780894195

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Monday, 14 March 2016

PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: IN MEMORIAM

When I was in college, I had the Nonesuch record of Peter Maxwell Davies' Vesalii Icones, which I may have bought simply because I loved the couple of Elliott Carter Nonesuch discs I had, and the cover of this one was even more elegant and thought-provoking than those. I played it a lot, especially at night when I was ready to sleep.

Right after I finished college, my friend Blake Allison and I went to Europe, and spent a couple of months in Britain, especially in London (in a bedsit in Muswell Hill, Kinks Kountry). I'm pretty sure I went to see The Fires Of London perform 8 Songs For A Mad King on that trip; though it might have been after I moved here in 1977. I know I heard a performance of A Mirror Of Whitening Light around that time; I don't think I could have been at the premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that March; if I ever find my diary I'll check. I will also one day find a few drafts of a poem based on that piece of music, which still remains one of my favourites of his. It was based on things like magic squares, a sort of mystic cross-referencing which puts me right back into the artistic experimentation of the 70s: as if the explosion of energy of the Sixties were expanding quickly and seeking some sort of entropic halt.

Davis had studied with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbit; I've appreciated the former more than the latter, but when I somehow lost my collection of contemporary composers a few years ago (to, I believe, theft) they weren't among the ones I went to in my rebuilding. But Maxwell Davies was. I got re-acquainted with his work through his own website: you could pick out works and build your own 'MaxOpus' CDs, customised classical, if you will.

Davies died today. He got his start when he was 14 and submitted a piece to BBC Children's Hour. He was taken under the wing of the show's producer, Roger Hill, who showed the piece to the actress/singer Violet Carson who said 'he's either quite brilliant or mad'. I don't think the critical evaluation of him changed a bit over the decades. I was amused listening to the report on the BBC Today programme; they seemed puzzled that he had been Master of the Queen's Music for ten years, and they were very cautionary to would-be listeners. They had a great line about his later work being more accessible, 'especially for children'. 'Of all ages' they should have added.

I suppose many of us get more cautious as our ears and brains suffer wear and tear. I have less patience with much of the music that drove me through the 70s: modern classical, free jazz, jazz-rock-funk. Maybe it's just a lack of energy to absorb and react to it. But I listened to A Mirror Of Whitening Light again today, and I find it just as energising now as I did then, just as challenging and satisfying. The version I have, by Academy Manson (which sounds like the name of a post-punk band) is available on You Tube, you can link to it here. Listen up. RIP Max.

Monday, 7 March 2016

PAT CONROY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the writer Pat Conroy is online at the Guardian now, you can link to it here. I expect it will be in the paper paper tomorrow: it got bumped today by Nancy Reagan.

The piece is pretty much as written. It's a complicated story, and Conroy of course told it at great length and many times, in many ways. There was a quote about the divorce from his second wife that didn't make the final cut: 'If she had been a country, I would have married North Korea'. I wonder, but can't say, if that were at the root of his estrangement from his second daughter.

I probably should have noted that although he was named Donald for his father, he went by Pat, his middle name. I could have gone into more detail about his basketball career at The Citadel, and a four-overtime upset of Virginia Military Institute his senior year. I would have liked to write a bit about the guilt he felt for not going to Vietnam like his classmates: I don't know if he were deferred because he'd married a widow with two children, or if he had a high lottery number, or if it were something else, but this fits into a literary strain which runs from, say, Hemingway, through the south via James Dickey with whom Conroy apparently studied. And that he wrote a perceptive introductory essay to a book about the problems of military brats which I had to edit out for space.

I also had a slight connection with the film of  Lords Of Discipline. The black cadet who tries to break the colour barrier at what is supposed to be The Citadel was played by Mark Breland, the boxer. I was working for ABC Sports at the time, and I was assigned the task of trying to keep Mark Breland out of trouble when he came to London. I even arranged a blind date for him with my then-wife's assistant: he was stunned by his night of clubbing with her, which I took to be a good thing.

The film of Prince Of Tides was in some ways better than the novel: more compact and less rambling. Conroy's style was prolix and often melodramatic; he wrote beautifully within that expansiveness. But what was odd were the bright red sharply-pointed almost Fu Manchu fingernails Barbra Streisand wore: something that seemed rather aggressive for a psycho-analyst. There is also a scene where she walks away from Nick Nolte and the camera stays on her legs and swaying bottom as if the director were marvelling that the star still had 'it'. I actually laughed in the theatre. You might say, however, that Conroy's books gave Jon Voight, Nolte, and Robert Duvall some of the best roles of their careers (and it's amazing how much Duvall resembles Donald Conroy).

I'm tempted to call the expansive quality of Conroy's writing something Irish in nature, but his name-checking Ulysses in his final novel merely called attention to the differences. But you get the sense story-telling was Conroy's metier. He told one about being at the doctor in 2011 when heart and lung problems were so severe the doc removed 11 pounds of water-weight from him in just ten minutes. 'I have an idea for a Frank Conroy Diet book,' he said. Although he never could escape those dark memories which were the root of his work, he appeared to somehow relax after that health scare, and his final years may have been more rewarding for him. I hope so. RIP

THE MANNING LEGACY

I've written a piece about Peyton Manning's retirement for Newstalk in Ireland, you can link to it here. They changed the title; I was hoping for a little of that Bourne Conundrum kind of feel to 'The Manning Legacy'. We shall see. You can also find me talking about Manning on BBC World Service Newshour yesterday: link to it here. I starts about 32 minutes into the piece. I'll also be on BBC World TV News tonight, on Sport Today, probably during the 19:30 bulletin.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

TRUMBO: FROM LONDON FILM FESTIVAL TO LONDON SCREENS

Trumbo made less of a splash than I expected at the London Film Festival; stories about the movie industry tend to be popular, not least among the press, and stories about the Hollywood blacklist resonate politically. Its release this month has reinforced that my: most of the attention has been paid to the lead performance by Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who was one of the most visible of the Hollywood 10 and, as the movie shows, one of the most active in finding ways to work around the blacklist before becoming the writer whose credits, on Spartacus and Exodus, brought the blacklist out of the closet and ended it once and for all.

It's a worthy film, but not a very exciting one. It fails to build the tension, either politically or personally, and deliberately detours around philosophic questions that might make it fascinating as a film of ideas. This is particularly strange as the paradox of the rich Hollywood communists is one the movie dips its toes into, but basically avoids.

Trumbo instead plays up a certain misconception, one I saw it repeated recently in Sarah Churchwell's Guardian piece about Preston Sturges. She wrote that Sturges 'commanded astronomical fees in an age when most scriptwriters were treated like hacks.' Trumbo was in the same category, but Churchwell's distinction is misleading. First, because regardless of how much money they were paid, virtually all studio writers were treated like hacks. It went with the territory. Second, even the hacks were well paid, which is why Faulkner and Fitzgerald and the like were out there hacking away. The lower level writers weren't paid enough to fund the relatively lavish lifestyles of the Trumbos, but they still were being paid more than most writers, and way more than most people. Even Trumbo gets a 'mere' $1,200 (automatically chiseled down from two grand by Frank King) for his first script for the King Brothers, which he writes in a few days. As Herman Mankiewicz famously cabled Ben Hecht: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around.”

This is one of the Trumbo paradoxes the movie dodges. Cranston's performance is a tour de force, but it's as studied, if not affected, as the writer himself: all cigarette holders, dry speeches in faux folksy, bathtub work station and the like. Trumbo was the most publically recognizable of the Ten, partly because he may have been the most highly-paid writer in Hollywood, partly because of the affectation, but the group was diverse—something the film plays down by condensing the more down-to-earth communists into one character, played (in a performance that has not received the attention it deserved) by the comedian Louis CK. Yet rather than be a foil for Trumbo, he's there mostly to prove what a good guy Trumbo was, then die off conveniently die off. The real politics of the CPUSA cell in Hollywood have been dissected elsewhere; John Howard Lawson, who doesn't feature here was in charge, a highly-paid Stalinist who may be best remembered now for his attack on Albert Maltz for questioning the party's attempts to control what members wrote.

More interesting is the personal level: Trumbo's explanation to his daughter of why he's a communist sounds like a modern democrat trying to explain why he's a 'liberal'. It reminded me of Guilty By Suspicion, written by blacklist victim Abraham Polonsky, who had his name removed from the credits when the Robert DeNiro character who won't inform was changed from a communist to a generic liberal. In the end, films about the blacklist (Guilty By Suspicion or The Front) always seem to boil down to the basic question of loyalty to one's friends; to honour. Trumbo tries to go a long way toward revealing the structural character of the blacklist, but seems to leave Trumbo's own politics out. He only joined CPUSA in 1943: after many in the party had left in protest of the Hitler/Stalin pact (if not the show trials). Few were flocking to the party in mid-war, and it would have been interesting to hear why Trumbo did. In some ways this might have been more interesting, and no less worthy, as a TV mini-series, with the time to address such conundra.


The movie makes a couple of interesting choices in terms of script and cast. They re-cast incidents, or, as with Louis CK, amalgamate characters for dramatic ease and effect. The most bravura moments in the movie are provided by John Goodman as Frank King, the Poverty Row producer. Goodman's explosive King is a tour de force, though one we've seen before: in Barton Fink and Matinee. In fact, in Matinee the character he's playing is basically William Castle, another guy Trumbo wrote for during the blacklist.

But while Trumbo may have been churning out (and commissioning) dozens and dozens of scripts for the King Bros, they weren't being made into movies by them, that's for sure; they produced only around a dozen films in the years of the blacklist. Trumbo's King Bros. script for The Brave One won an Oscar he couldn't receive (he'd 'get' another for Roman Holiday); but he also wrote the script for Gun Crazy. His work was credited to front Millard Kaufman, along with MacKinley Kantor, who wrote the original magazine story and first version of the screenplay. He hated Trumbo's redoing of it. Go figure, because Joseph H Lewis' movie is a classic. 

The re-cast incidents include John Wayne's confrontation with Trumbo; it happened, but it was Carl Foreman, not Trumbo, who was the object of the Duke's anger. Likewise with the corrupt former head of the House Un-American Affairs committee, Pernell Thomas: the confrontation in prison happened in Danbury, Connecticut, not where Trumbo was jailed in Kentucky; it was Lester Cole who got the last word. And I wondered why, when Otto Preminger goes to Trumbo's bungalow to ask him to write Exodus, they need to be introduced to each other. Trumbo had written The Court-Martial Of Billy Mitchell for Preminger back in 1955.

The actors playing actors are a mixed bag. David James Elliott as John Wayne and Christian Berkel as Preminger are a little too clean, as is Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G Robinson; but Stuhlbarg manages to convey the inner turmoil, and perhaps weakness, in Robinson's dilemma of naming names. The most interesting is Dean O'Gorman as Kirk Douglas: he's Douglas played very still as a person, smaller than you'd think, and not as completely dominant as he probably was around this time. Though after Goodman, the show stealer is Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper. Mirren looks so much like Patricia Clarkson in this role I wondered why they hadn't hired the latter, but the thin-skinned edge to her power, and the perhaps incongruous blackmail of Louis B Meyer are done perfectly. But whether Hopper would have actually dared try something like that with Meyer, who'd made her career, is doubtful; here she is standing in for the worry of the Hollywood moguls, well-documented about seeming, as rich immigrant Jews, somehow un-American.

While the movie eschews most of Trumbo's political background, it makes the blacklist into a story of family conflict, as the writer uses and alienates his wife and children. Or at least his children, because we really get very little of his wife's reaction, which is a shame because the viewer keeps waiting for Diane Lane's big scene, which you know must be coming, and never does. You can understand why a film would concentrate on the personal dimension; why they would leave that portion of it unexamined is more puzzling.

In the end, Trumbo succeeds in getting to its eponymous character's essence best when we finally see his name on the screen credits once again, and we see the mix of pride and justification, of artistic satisfaction and return to status that play across Cranston's face. Eventually Trumbo's name was restored to the credits of the films he wrote, and the real life coda is indeed a moving one, showing the story is still one that needs telling.