“Trumbo” Offers a Solid Hollywood Take on a Sordid Hollywood Tale

Trumbo

Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015)

Who was Dalton Trumbo? Do you know? If not, you should. A somewhat arrogant, self-important cuss, he was nevertheless one of the most important Hollywood screenwriters of the middle of the 20th century, made immortal by his leading position among the “Hollywood Ten” (as well as by his penning of films like Kitty FoyleOur Vines Have Tender Grapes and Spartacus, among others), those left-leaning writers and directors (9 former, 1 latter) called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1947 to answer questions about their political affiliations past and present. “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” barked Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas (soon to be indicted on financial corruption charges). When they refused to answer, citing their First Amendment rights to believe and say whatever they so chose, they were cited for contempt of Congress. Many would later serve jail sentences. “How could that be?” you may ask. “Aren’t we a free country?” Well, yes, you’re right, but keep in mind the vagaries of human nature and remember that this was the start of the Cold War, in which our erstwhile allies, the Soviets, were now morphing into our enemies, and anything deemed ideologically similar to their professed views was suspect. As we see today, humans are never immune from fear of difference, so Trumbo’s story offers lessons just as valid in 2015 as they were in the 1950s.

This is by no means a perfect film. It has the usual pitfalls of the biopic: it elides historical events, creates composite characters out of multiple real ones, and oversimplifies many of the issues it portrays in its attempt to fit the whole story within the demands of the Hollywood three-act structure template. That said, Trumbo does a wonderful job with the big picture, clearly presenting the reasons behind the blacklist that resulted from the HUAC hearings; a blacklist which denied many in the film industry the chance to work, tarnished as they were by the Communist label. As written by John McNamara (with many TV credits to his name, including “Aquarius“) and directed by Jay Roach (with credits from Austin Powers to Meet the Parents to Game Change), the movie offers a combination of light satirical humor and hard-hitting political critique. It may, in fact, be the best mainstream dramatic retelling of this period in Hollywood history (The Front, with Woody Allen, notwithstanding), warts and all.

Much of the credit for the film’s success lies with its lead, Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad“), who brings Dalton Trumbo’s signature bluster and stubbornness to vivid life. He’s assisted by a fine ensemble cast that includes Diane Lane (Man of Steel), Helen Mirren (Hitchcock), Alan Tudyk (42), Elle Fanning (Maleficent), Michael Stuhlbarg (Steve Jobs), Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine) and many more. We believe in all of Trumbo’s qualities as a human being, both good and bad. He was a clever son of a gun, and as we watch him slowly write himself out of post-prison penury, taking work on the sly to avoid the scrutiny of nosy gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren), we believe that only this man could really have beaten the blacklist through sheer force of will. It’s a terrific performance in a film not always worthy of it – with one too many scenes of purely expositional dialogue – and it holds our attention as the real Trumbo must have held that of his peers. See it for him and for an easy primer on a terrible period in American history. Just don’t take it as actual history. It’s a movie, after all.