(On TV, April 2018) The fifties were big on sword-and-sandal epics, and Spartacus is in many ways just another link in the chain that goes from, at least, Quo Vadis (1951) to Cleopatra (1963). That it happens to be a Stanley Kubrick film (directing a script by the equally legendary Dalton Trumbo) is almost immaterial—Kubrick famously disliked the end result, and reacted to his experience making the film by staying as far away from Hollywood as possible for the rest of his career. Still, there’s a lot to like here, starting with Kirk Douglas’s spectacular performance as Spartacus, or Laurence Oliver sparring with him as Crassus, or notables such as Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov (back in sandals!) Tony Curtis or Jean Simmons in other roles. Trumbo’s script is quite good (the “I’m Spartacus ! ”scene lives on) and the execution does live up to Kubrick’s exacting standards. As historical epics go, Spartacus is one of the better ones, and it warrants watching as more than a historical reference.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) Screenwriters are my Hollywood heroes, so it makes sense that I’d like Trumbo a lot more for its depiction of a screenwriter as a two-fisted creative brawler than for its on-the-nose take on the evils of the McCarthytism and its Hollywood black list. Bryan Cranston is very likable in the lead role of Dalton Trumbo, left-wing screenwriter blacklisted by Hollywood during the fifties, sent to prison, and making a living by anonymously writing movies both bad and good, even winning two Oscars under pseudonyms. Perhaps the best sequences in the film detail Trumbo’s living and business arrangement as he created a system of delegate writers to satisfy the prodigious appetites of a B-movie studio looking for affordable quality. Of course, even if Trumbo is handled by veteran comedy director Jay Roach, it gets its respectability by hammering at Trumbo’s blacklisting. That part of the film feels far less satisfying, going over familiar material about McCarthy’s red scare in a way that doesn’t feel remotely subtle. Fortunately, the film picks up toward the end as Trumbo reintegrates the Hollywood elite, thanks to people like Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. Trumbo may fail in trying to present a hefty respectable drama about the dangers of political profiling, but it partially recovers by taking us within the world of a top-level screenwriter.