Two new films in Berkeley theaters this week depict the dangers of demagoguery from two different perspectives—from the relatively small-scale harassment of the Hollywood 10, to the murderous horrors of Augusto Pinochet’s reign in Chile.
Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood writers blacklisted after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was perhaps the most brashly outspoken of the group, as well as the first to overcome the blacklist.
Trumbo is a documentary based loosely on the play written by son Christopher Trumbo that starred Brian Dennehy in the title role. The film doesn’t adapt the stage play; instead it’s essentially a standard documentary, with interviews and archival footage, but interspersed with staged readings of Trumbo’s letters to family, friends, colleagues and enemies.
Many actors are brought in for these readings, and several of them are quite good. The reasoning is obvious and a bit clumsy: By bringing in a range of well-known actors, the film’s box office appeal is increased. Another reason is to likely mirror that moment in Spartacus, written by Trumbo, in which a group of slaves stands up one at a time to cry out “I am Spartacus!” in a showing of solidarity. Here actors ranging in age and persona utter Trumbo’s words as if to say that his words are universal, that they speak to and through all of us.
Trumbo’s letters were by turns poignant, flashy, bellowing, humorous and ribald, but they all share one thing in common: a delight in the beauty and rhythm and power of language. Some of these actors do a decent job: Joan Allen, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson, Michael Douglas. One in particular, Josh Lucas, does an absolutely lousy job, reading the dramatic eloquence of Trumbo with the inflections of a moody Gen. X slacker. But when David Strathairn and Dennehy take the role, they bring the power and grace and humor of Trumbo to the fore, and we wonder why the filmmakers couldn’t have simply stuck with these two for the duration. Strathairn handles it with gravity and force, staring down the camera; Dennehy brings out more of the raconteur, delivering the lines with a devil-may-care smile. Though the film has its moments, ultimately it just makes you wish you had seen the stage show.
The Judge and the General
When Chilean Judge Juan Guzman was assigned to investigate charges against the 17-year regime of Augusto Pinochet, dissidents had little reason to expect that justice would be served. In a government rife with corruption, and where judges also act as special investigators, it was expected that Guzman—who was not only a conservative, but a Pinochet supporter—would continue the practice covering of up the dictator’s crimes and deferring to the immunity that Pinochet claimed for himself.
But Guzman proved himself to be a man of great courage and integrity. As documented in a new film, The Judge and the General, Guzman was able to put aside his biases and keep his mind open as he heard testimony and uncovered evidence that told a much different story than the one he had been to led to believe for so many years.
The investigation “opened the eyes of my soul,” Guzman says, and through him the country itself seemed to be atoning for its sins. “A wounded country needs to know the truth.”
The film, by Berkeley resident and PBS NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Farmsworth and Patricio Lanfranco, is showing this week at Rialto Theater Elmwood in Berkeley and will show on PBS Tuesday, Aug. 19.
Directed by Peter Akin. Featuring Brian Dennehy, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson, Michael Douglas, Donald Sutherland, Josh Lucas, Nathan Lane. 96 minutes. Playing at Shattuck Cinemas.
THE JUDGE AND THE GENERAL
Directed by Elizabeth Farmsworth and
Patricio Lanfranco. 86 minutes.
Playing at Rialto Theater Elmwood.