Saturday 16 April 2016

The Political and the Personal: The Crime Novels of Todd Babiak

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large but I reproduce it on this website because the author, Todd Babiak,  explores in his novels the struggle to maintain one's humanity in the face of evil.

Author Todd Babiak.

The political and the personal underpin and course through Todd Babiak’s harrowing sometimes violent Come Barbarians and its sequel, Son of France (HarperCollins 2016). A former Albertan journalist and the author of light social satire novels, Babiak, after having read the oeuvre of John le CarrĂ© and a smattering of Graham Greene, turned to the crime/thriller genre without sacrificing the quality writing of his earlier literary works. Like his protagonist, Christopher Kruse, Babiak moved with his family to southern France. Like Kruse, Babiak learned early the art of self-defence and became a security agent who in the course of his work needed to “hurt” people. But now with a family, Babiak jettisoned that life, but draws upon that personal experience to create Kruse, his most rounded character. During the year in France, he absorbed its ultra-nationalist politics that provides the backdrop for both of these compelling thrillers.

Sunday 3 April 2016

Tensions between History and Film: Trumbo

This essay that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this website because I argue that the filmmakers of Trumbo refused to explore in any meaningful way the dark side to which America descended during the Hollywood blacklist.

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo.

Before a scene is shot, a screenplay is necessary. The screenwriter may draw upon his own imagination as well as other source material, as does John McNamara in Trumbo. But therein also lies a major problem: McNamara conveys skewed or caricatured portraits of gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, actors John Wayne and Edgar G. Robinson, but also relies substantially on Bruce Cook’s hagiographic 1977 biography Trumbo (reissued in 2015), a source that the screenwriter acknowledges having read ten times. Cook did extensive interviews, including with Dalton Trumbo himself, to write primarily about his personal life and professional career as Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter before the blacklist. During those repressive times, he peddled scripts to small independent companies and then used a “front” who pretended to be the writer. Two of his scripts, for which he could not be credited, won Oscars.

Unfortunately, Dalton Trumbo’s politics is given short shrift in Cook’s biography, a major flaw that is reflected in the film, given that Trumbo’s politics is the driving force behind making the film. As a result, Jay Roach has directed a simplistic, superficial and curiously apolitical biopic – notwithstanding a few heated exchanges about labour strikes in the film industry and Trumbo handing out leaflets – that drains the historical setting from 1946 until the early 1960s of any real context. I say curious because his earlier effort, Game Change, a television movie about John McCain’s disastrous decision to choose Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate, is an insightful political film and vastly superior to this mediocre and occasionally embarrassing, puerile production. The blacklist that deprived hundreds of Hollywood personalities of their jobs polarized Americans. Roach’s Trumbo has replicated that polarization – some critics calling it a “thoughtful account” and a “sobering true event” while others have dismissed it as a “whitewash.” Unfortunately, I must side with the latter assessment, but for different reasons.