Synopsis – In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter, until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.
My Take – Every year around the time of the Oscar season we almost always get a film based on some real life story from modern history which ends up usually getting some form of critical acclaim and sometimes finds success at the Box Office. I thought the same case applied for this one as well, which created a little buzz just before the season began mainly due to the lead performance of Bryan Cranston (leading to his nomination in the Best Actor category) and being a fan I decided to check this one out. Other than the obvious excellent performances, what stood out for me was the interesting premise of the blacklisted stars of Hollywood during the Cold War/Communism, and I don’t think there has been a lot of films based on this. The film deals with it in a very straight forward biography sort of way. It doesn’t shock, it doesn’t really surprise, it just tells it’s story like a History channel recreation and I don’t mean to make it sound like it’s not great, it is very good and very entertaining. The best part is the movie is really fun to watch though whether or not you know a lot about the history. The story follows Communist Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) known for penning such classic films as Roman Holiday and Spartacus. The film is a period piece set in the late 40s and early 50s, following the life of Dalton Trumbo, arguably the leader of the Hollywood 10 who stood up to congress over what they saw as the illegal investigation and censorship of people’s beliefs and free speech during the Second Red Scare after WWII. At the time, Congress and, in turn, members of the Hollywood elite blackballed writers, actors, directors, etc who identified as communists. Not spies for Moscow, but communists by political belief. Some faced jail time. Some lost their homes because they could not find work. Others encountered harsher realities. And Hollywood witch-hunt was merely a small part of a more wide-spread affront to civil liberties. A lot of the conflict comes because of what the history had right there: HUAC went after people in Hollywood who were suspected ‘traitors’, but in reality were just writers and (some) actors and directors who had affiliations with the party, and thanks to pressure by columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott), a group got pressured.
They didn’t name names, were held in contempt of court, found guilty and did time. Well, unless if you were Edward G. Robinson (though he’s shown in a somewhat sympathetic light, maybe just by Michael Stuhlbarg being in the role). The bulk of the story is about the ‘front’ that Trumbo led for himself and other blacklisted writers such as stubborn/cancer-ridden Arlen Hird (Louis CK). They used fake names to get their scripts made, even as they had no choice for a while but to team up with filmmakers who were out to just make “crap” like the brothers Frank King (John Goodman) and Hymie King (Stephen Root). There’s some predictable drama that unfolds – the all-business-all-writing part of Dalton that conflicts with being a father and family-man and clashing with his daughter Niki (Elle Fanning) and wife Cleo (Diane Lane) – but what helps it along all the way is just a sharp script and direction that keeps things thematically strong. This being a biography is advantageous. A real biography, not a overly fictionalized and caricatured profile of the era. This despite that fact that some of the characters are fictionalized, they nonetheless represent the experiences and attitudes of real people. Louis C.K.’s Arlen Hird character being one. Dalton Trumbo may have had a better time of it than most, such as Hird. This was a time, as the film states when people were fighting for their professional and personal life against what could be called a creeping fascist tendency in the US political environment. The fear and reaction and self promotion of many (i.e. John Wayne, Hedda Hopper.) is evident here. The script is sharp and it’s difficult not to delight in the vicious pleasure the film takes from the rebuffs he doles out to anyone in his path, at one stage asking John Wayne where he was stationed during the glorious war effort that he constantly revels in; ‘On a movie set, firing blanks wearing make-up?’. But the film is more light hearted than its premise as it deals with the post-HUAC career of Dalton Trumbo, the most interesting one. Through a dynamic fast-paced rhythm, most of the scenes rarely exceed three or four minutes, we see Trumbo using fronts to present the script to Hollywood studios, and to eventually win Oscars for “Roman Holiday” and ‘The Brave One’, a film originally produced by B-movies studios King Brothers. Known as a hard-worker and versatile writer, Trumbo used many fake names and worked on several projects in the same time and even used his family to find projects, answers the phones or send the script. Even though it heavily affected his family life, Trumbo invented a form of Resistance, proving that, after all, he was a good American. Indeed, there’s business in show business and Hollywood can’t afford to lose a man who makes good scripts. In Trumbo’s case, quality paid off but there was more to it. While some performers were diminished by the blacklisting, as a screenwriter, Trumbo was immune because the very status of the screenwriter is to work in the shadow, whereas actors can’t do without their image, and this is maybe why Eddie Robinson were forced to cooperate.
Trumbo’s heroism was driven by principles, but convenience too. And gradually, his talents takes him back to bigger projects, and 1960 turns out to be the key year for him with such projects as “Exodus” and “Spartacus”. This film is not just a biographical drama covering the darkest pages of Hollywood history, it’s also an ode to talent and hard-work. Bryan Cranston is incredibly enjoyable to watch, and during the credits you get to watch a clip of the real Trumbo to compare. This is a stand out performance from Bryan Cranston but does he need to impress us anymore? Cranston definitely sinks his heart into playing the passionate and flawed Dalton Trumbo. The writing of the film is just a little bit weak so I think Cranston has to work extra hard to make Trumbo impressive and I think he pulls it off. There is no doubt of his talent and charisma. Diane Lane is decent but very overshadowed as Trumbo’s doting wife. Her character isn’t written with a lot of strength and she goes through so much that I think she needed to be less subtle. Still Lane is very and excellent coupled with Cranston. Helen Mirren rarely renders a character who is to be trifled with, and her portrayal of Hopper is no exception. Throughout the film, Hopper stops at nothing to make sure her rules are obeyed; from the fake smiles flashed at the cameras and her devious manipulation of everyone around her through to her brutal threats to the head of MGM should he not follow her request to sack Trumbo and co from the staff. Elle Fanning really is fantastic (watch this girl because I think she’s gonna be a full on star in a few years) really comes into her own in the middle of the film. Alan Tudyk, Louis C.K. and John Goodman are all great in small roles. Dean O’Gorman was excellent in his impression of Kirk Douglas. On the whole, ‘Trumbo’ is a really enjoyable film, although its predictable at times, Bryan Cranston elevates the film to provide an interesting portrayal of a fascinating man in a dark, fear-filled period of American history.
Director – Jay Roach
Rated – R
Run Time – 124 minutes