Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood 10 targeted and jailed for being “Communists”, at a time soon after World War II and heading into Korean War, when that was a very bad, very unpatriotic term in America.
With Bernie Sanders, a self-declared “democratic socialist” — his rivals insist that’s just a more acceptable term for Communist — knocking at the door of the US Presidency, this then is as good a time as there ever will be to have a film like Trumbo.
Cranston, nominated for Best Actor Oscar for the role, plays the hit as well as critically acclaimed screenwriter with some verve and a lot of feeling. Hauled before Congressional hearings and attacked by the ‘Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals’, he lays out clearly what is at stake here, at one point denouncing the attempt to “indict opinion to criminalise thought”.
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The script by John McNamara, based on a book by Bruce Cook, spends too much time perhaps on Trumbo’s family life (including a woefully underused Lane). However, at every instant that he fights external demons, the film is exact and precise. That “vaguer” the enemy, the longer the war; that “traitor” is the easiest charge to level against a critic; that “the Congress has every right to go after who it chooses” is a dangerous line to let a government cross; that fighting the system from within is as difficult as battling it from without; and that the bravest men can be bent to a government’s will.
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At the same time, Trumbo is a fascinating account of how show business works, where success ultimately subverts everything else. While on “the black list”, Trumbo wrote scripts under pseudonym and won Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, paving the way for that taint to collapse under its own contradictions. He found jobs with B-list producers, churned out scrips sometimes the same day, set up a small business of sorts with other blacklisted screenwriters, and upended Hollywood from right under it.
The charge from the other side is led by former actress and gossip writer Hedda Hopper, played by a positively poisonous and rapaciously bitter Helen Mirren. Hopper even makes it to the cover of Time for the attacks she leads on writers such as Trumbo, whom she considers “un-American”. Studio heads and actors who consider hiring Trumbo face her threats and wrath, both spoken and unspoken.
As is the nature of such campaigns, it ends as quietly as the noise with which it began — with one phone call here, and a line by President Kennedy there. There is no walk into the sunset for, according to Trumbo, there are no “heroes” or “villains” in this war, only “victims”, “made to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do”.
And yet, and yet.
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C K, John Goodman, Dean O’Gorman