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The Rife Team

FILM: ‘Trumbo’ vs ‘The Front’


Hari explores how film is dissecting a dark part of America’s history.

Two films predominantly set in the 1950s, two films exploring one of Hollywood’s darkest eras, the infamous ‘Blacklist’ and two fantastic performances from the lead actors of each film.

‘Trumbo’ vs ‘The Front’, let’s go.

‘The Front’

As part of the Watershed’s ‘Are you now or have you ever been…?’ series of Sunday brunches, they showcased the movie, ‘The Front’, one in a series of films selected because they were inspired by Hollywood’s most notorious witch hunt: the House Of Un-American Activities Committee. If you were picking movies to tie in with the release of ‘Trumbo’, this had to be on the list.

Blacklisted artists Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein were blackballed for refusing to name suspected communists and thus unable to work for years. Upon the HUAC’s abolition in 1975, the two directed and wrote (respectively) ‘The Front’, starring Woody Allen in a satire that had plenty of drama and emotion.

Allen’s portrayal of Howard, a down-on-his-luck cashier who agrees to become a front for one of his best friends (a blacklisted writer), shows that he is one hell of a performer, even when he isn’t directing or writing the movie he is starring in. He then decides to act as a front for several different writers, cashing in and turning a profit from his facade. Then, as it would be, he becomes the target of the committee himself, which leads to some wonderful scenes in the courthouse between Allen and the panel accusing him of subversive political activities in favour of Communism.

The film does take a dark twist towards the end, with Heckey (played by Zero Mostel) ending his life due to the stress and frustration he suffered from not being casted, and playing smaller gigs for a fraction of what he used to make. Largely lauded, I wasn’t that big a fan of Mostel’s performance. Charming, sure, but it felt a little shallow or empty, but his final scene was brilliantly chilling.

The final scene when Howard finally comes to realise the type of soulless monsters he is up against, does provide a sense of relief in a way that the crudeness is essential to it, to the outrage he feels towards their emotional manipulation.

Overall, as a film that attempts to simultaneously satirise and shine a spotlight on the blacklisted era, ‘The Front’ is an enjoyable film.

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I hadn’t heard anything good about ‘Trumbo’ aside from Bryan Cranston’s performance so I went in with very low expectations and was pleasantly surprised with an enjoyable film. As a fan of ‘Breaking Bad’, it has been great to see Cranston transition from Golden Globe-winning actor to a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance. To paraphrase one of the Watershed comments cards: you were able to completely lose yourself in Trumbo the character and never saw Cranston the actor.

The same could be said for co-star Diane Lane, but could not be said for some of his other co-stars: Helen Mirren and Louis CK. Mirren seemed like the wrong fit for Hedda Hopper, and perhaps the role should have gone to an American actress of equal stature and elegance, eg Glenn Close or Meryl Streep. Her role seems very one-dimensional, when in fact, there was a far more interesting side to her that isn’t explored.

Screenwriter John McNamara, in an appearance on Q &A with Jeff Goldsmith (an outstanding free podcast for writers and film nerds) reveals how Hopper and Trumbo were both isolationists against the war, and how she gave a rave review of Trumbo’s novel, ‘Johnny Got His Gun’. She became the primary antagonist of the film, who was so right wing in real life that she made John Wayne, the greatest icon of the American right, apologise for being too centrist. This diversity of character was not apparent on screen, as she came across rather one-dimensional. Perhaps it is there in the subtext, and is not supposed to be exposition, but if it was then it didn’t work. You never felt there was another layer lying underneath. The screenwriter and Mirren both saw Hopper as devoid of any virtue, except for her honest belief that what she was doing was for the betterment of the American people. She had no other agenda, and was not a hypocrite. It’s a shame this level of complexity doesn’t come across.

Another disappointment is the role of Arlen Hird, played by Louis CK. I’m a huge fan of the TV show ‘Louie’ and am in awe of his stand-up performances, but he just did not belong in this film. Maybe because I know him so well, I wasn’t able to break the ties and see him in the role, but I’ve spent over 100 hours with Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Hal, and Cranston still managed to make me a believer.

Or perhaps there was another fault. From the same interview with McNamara, it was Bryan’s suggestion that the movie needed a far-left character to counter-balance Hopper and John Wayne’s right-wing positions, when Trumbo himself is more left-of-centre politically. In steps Louis CK who only received his new script notes when rehearsing the scenes before shooting. The result is Louis making certain changes, which leads to his dialogue sounding very natural and modern, whereas Cranston is completely absorbed in the world of the 50s.

Returning to Bryan Cranston’s performance, it’s so great that some of his dialogue would become cliched and cringeworthy or stale in another actor’s hands. He makes you truly feel inspired through the emotion and the power of the words he uses. In steps, Louis CK’s Arlen Hird to make startling observations to the nature of ‘must you say everything like it’s chiseled in a rock?’ instead, which ruins the atmosphere created (and that line was found in a rehearsal before shooting, similar to how a play can be ruined by an onslaught of inside jokes made up by the cast [I’ve been guilty of that too]).

Furthermore, Hird’s character suffers from cancer. Furthermore, can Hollywood please stop using cancer as an emotional crutch for their characters and either treat the issue as the life-altering experience it is or stop altogether.

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The unfortunate thing is that the more I heard the interview with Jeff Goldsmith, the more I felt decisions were made to go in the completely wrong direction by the writer. For example, McNamara said that he needed “to make issue between Trumbo and Hird about politics instead of writing”, forcing in a left-wing perspective rather than looking at the bitter friendship break ups that occurred over Trumbo rewriting the works of other people.

Instead of using the character of Hird as a device for political debate, they should have just kept one of the scenes they deleted from the final edit. In the scene, Trumbo is apparently asked by his daughter why he is building the lake, to which he replies that once his lake is built, anyone can come and fish in the lake, and that is how he will help people. Leave the audience to judge for themselves what they make of a statement like that.

There are a few other decisions that feel flat. (1) There’s a lot of swearing in this film, despite being a movie that doesn’t need it and runs smoothly without it. It sounds forced. (2) Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Virgil Brooks, a prisoner who also swears a lot, a role to apparently turn the stereotype of a white writer teaching a black prisoner how to read on its head, but this isn’t really needed in the movie. (3) The scene from the trailer where John Goodman takes a baseball bat to a representative of the HUAC was added because the movie ‘needed an adrenaline boost at that point’ – not at all true, and this makes the scene unrealistic and over-the-top (even if it was that scene that made Goodman want to do the film), and finally (4) getting rid of a fantastic scene telling the story of how Trumbo and his wife met, because the writer thought ‘the scene needed conflict’.

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What they did do a good job of is showing Trumbo’s darker side with his family, how he was a functioning alcoholic and addicted to speed and how he was perpetually broke throughout his life and his stress of working on 12 scripts for 12 different production companies under 12 different aliases. Trumbo prided himself on not being the best, but the fastest writer in Hollywood, turning in a script in sometimes less than three days. Furthermore, the confrontation between Trumbo and American icon John Wayne is brilliantly done, based on a true event (even though it wasn’t Trumbo in real delivering those words).

Diane Lane’s performance as Cleo is wonderful, I wanted to see more of her and more from her whenever she was on screen, brilliant job in a great supporting role. There is a little subliminal Oscar bait in a ‘revealing’ scene between Trumbo & his daughter, with the latter saying that her father deserves to win the Academy Award for what he’s done, but Cranston saves this because when you look at him, you get the impression he knows this already but he’s willing to amuse his daughter.

Overall, a fun film to watch, but not worthy of winning anything from awards season, although if Cranston won Best Actor I’d be happy with that.