The Toronto International Film Festival, in its 40th year, is, at this point, North America’s largest, sprawling across this massive city with more than 300 films vying for the attention of the public and the press.
I’ve been attending this festival since 1984 – which would seem like a lot to me, had I not been in the audience to see Barbara Kopple’s moving and uplifting new documentary, “Miss Sharon Jones!” As the film was introduced, the programmer doing the introduction pointed out that Kopple was one of three filmmakers with work in this festival who also had films in the very first Toronto festival: her 1976 documentary, “Harlan County USA,” which went on to win Kopple the first of her two Oscars.
I have fond memories of films I saw here for the first time. In that first year, for example, I caught the Coen brothers’ debut, “Blood Simple,” as well as “Places in the Heart” and Steve Martin’s “All of Me.”
This year’s edition will be remembered for putting both Jay Roach’s “Trumbo” and James Vanderbilt’s “Truth” in contention for the Oscar race. I saw the two films back to back on Sunday – and they are guaranteed to both grip you and infuriate you, because of the way they resonate with the political situation we find ourselves in (and to which we doomed ourselves in 2004).
“Truth” stars Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes, a journalist and producer for “60 Minutes” who, in 2004, came across what seemed to be evidence that then-President George W. Bush, who was seeking reelection, had received preferential treatment to get into the Texas National Guard (and avoid being sent to Vietnam), then essentially skated on the last couple of years of his guard duty, again thanks to pulled strings. But Mapes was the victim of forged documents and looming deadlines; while she had the story right, she and her boss, Dan Rather (played with canny folksiness by Robert Redford), both took the fall for the doctored documents.
The Mapes story itself is more than a decade old, but the problems it represents remain fresh. While Mapes and Rather made mistakes, they were hung out to dry by both CBS (more concerned about profits than seeking the truth) and the rest of the media. CBS’ competitors seemed obsessed with bringing down CBS, rather than pursuing the substance of the story itself: that Bush, in all likelihood, had used his connections to avoid Vietnam, then used them again to skip out on a lot of duty.
As Vanderbilt’s film points out, CBS (and Viacom) were basically afraid of antagonizing the Bush White House – which used its mastery of misdirection and strong (but inaccurate) messaging. Blanchett captures the frustration of Mapes, a hard-charging journalist who finds that she’s been turned into the story, in order to discredit her efforts on the real story.
Blanchett is already being touted for an Oscar for her work in the upcoming “Carol,” but this performance – tough, smart, vulnerable — may also make her a contender. She has strong support from Redford, as well as Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss and Topher Grace, as her investigative team. “Truth” is a film guaranteed to reignite this controversy and, perhaps, finally bring the truth out into the open.
Jay Roach’s “Trumbo” is equally good at making the blood boil. It follows the fate of noted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was called before Congress in the late 1940s during the Red Scare of that era and ultimately imprisoned (as part of the Hollywood 10), for refusing to answer questions in front of HUAC about his activities as a member of the American Communist Party.
Bryan Cranston brings Trumbo to wonderfully literate life, snapping off smart remarks as though born to it, behind Trumbo’s bushy mustache, horn-rimmed glasses and ever-present cigarette holder. He even finds a certain dignity in Trumbo’s habit of writing in the bathtub.
John McNamara’s script follows the idealistic Trumbo from the late 1940s, when he convinced the rest of the Hollywood 10 to stand up to Congress (to their ultimate downfall), through his post-prison career cranking out shlock for low-budget studios, fighting the blacklist by writing under fake names. In the process, he won two Oscars under pseudonyms. Cranston positively crackles in the role, bristling as he goes toe-to-toe with Helen Mirren (as the viciously anti-communist Hedda Hopper) and finds himself helpless to aid fellow scribe Arlin Herd (a very-good Louis CK).
That “America – love it or leave it” mentality was catalyzed by fear during the McCarthy era and led to the blacklist that stands as a smear on the American character in the mid-20th century (not unlike the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII). It was the same undercurrent that helped stampede the U.S. to war with Iraq, behind the same kind of attitude: Either you support us or you’re with the terrorists.
Roach and Cranston make Trumbo a man of principle who doesn’t understand that being right does you no good in a time of cowardice and fear. It’s a fascinating examination of the way the playing field can shift right under the feet of the people who seem to be doing the best at playing by the rules.
My last film on Sunday was “Miss Sharon Jones!,” a powerfully entertaining documentary about the intoxicating and infectious spirit of its title character. If you haven’t heard Jones and the Dap-Kings, her tight-as-a-drum backing group, you are missing out on singularly muscular and compelling rhythm’n’blues that is modern and classic at the same time.
Onstage, Jones is a dynamo, a cross between Tina Turner and James Brown, packed into a fireplug frame. But as Kopple catches up with her in 2013, Jones has had to postpone the release of her new album before she can tour to promote it because she’s been diagnosed with Stage II pancreatic cancer. The film follows her as she undergoes chemotherapy and pays visits to her family in Georgia and South Carolina, and recuperates at the same time.
Jones was once dismissed by a record executive for whom she’d auditioned, who told her that she was too black, too short, too fat and too old for him to sign. So she made it herself, moving up from singing in wedding bands to creating a distinctive throwback sound with a contemporary sensibility. Kopple captures her passion for the music, her fear about her illness and her fight to stay alive. It’s a film that’s guaranteed to send you scurrying to download her lively music.
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