Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jay Roach
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C K, Elle Fanning, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, David James Elliott, Alan Tudyk, Richard Portnow, Roger Bart, Sean Bridgers, Adewale Akinuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Root, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel.
The so-called McCarthy era and its communist witch hunts is one of the most shameful episodes of American political history in the twentieth century. There have been a few films that have looked at this dark era characterised by paranoia and suspicion, including The Front, which gave Woody Allen a rare serious role, and Irwin Winkler’s Guilty By Suspicion. But this latest film, which focuses on screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played here by Bryan Cranston, from tv series Breaking Bad, etc), gives us plenty of insight into the era and the effect of the very public hearings that named and shamed even prominent people.
In 1947 Trumbo was one of the most respected and highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. But that all came to a halt when the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in Washington turned its attention to Hollywood trying to root out communist sympathisers in the movie industry. Many prominent people found their lives ruined and their careers ended after being named by the committee. Prominent Hollywood names could save themselves from public shame by naming names and identifying other so-called red sympathisers (and many, like film director Elia Kazan, did just that).
Trumbo refused to testify before the committee, citing his First Amendment rights, which fell on deaf ears with the self-serving committee members. Trumbo was indicted for contempt of congress and sentenced to 11 months in a federal prison. He is the most famous of the notorious so-called “Hollywood Ten”, screenwriters who were blacklisted after refusing to testify and name names before the committee. Blacklisted by all the major Hollywood studios, they were unable to work again.
But Trumbo found a way around the ban. He continued to write screenplays, using pseudonyms, and even managed to win a couple of Oscars along the way (for Roman Holiday and The Brave One). He found himself and a number of fellow out of work writers a job as an assembly line writing B-grade schlock and a string of monster movies for a second rate studio run by the King Brothers, who were happy to have quantity over quality.
Throughout the film though we meet a number of famous people, including the strident and staunchly anti-communist John Wayne (played by David James Elliott, best known for his role in long running tv series JAG, etc), malicious gossip columnist and impassioned communist hater Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), and powerful stars like Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel). It was the latter two who openly hired Trumbo to write Spartacus and Exodus respectively for them, which resulted in breaking the blacklist.
Trumbo is based on the 1977 biography written by Bruce Alexander Cook, but television screenwriter John McNamara (Lois And Clark, Aquarius, etc) has taken some liberties with the story for dramatic effect. Trumbo marks something of a change of pace for director Jay Roach, who is better known for his work on comedies like Austin Powers and Meet The Parents, etc. His pacing of the material is deliberate and measured, and visually the film is quite bland and conventional in nature. The film also manages to integrate another key struggle -that for racial equality – into the material. Roach incorporates some newsreel footage from the era to give us a sense of the period.
But the film also delivers a potent howl of outrage at the injustice committed by the paranoia-driven HUAC during its hearings. And, as Trumbo points out during an impassioned speech that helped turn the tide against the committee, despite millions of dollars spent on the committee, hours of testimony, ruined careers and lives, the committee did not uncover one communist spy, communist conspiracy, or introduce one new piece of legislation.
The bleaker nature of the material is also tempered with generous and unexpected touches of humour and irony. In one brief scene Trumbo is mopping the floor in the prison when he comes across one of his persecutors, who has been convicted of tax evasion. “It’s funny that of the two of us in here, you’re the only one who has actually committed a crime,” Trumbo observes.
Roach has assembled a solid cast who all deliver superb performances. This is Cranston’s show however, and he immerses himself in the role, bringing the flawed Trumbo to life with an impassioned performance. He captures Trumbo’s mannerisms, his wry smile, his habit of writing while sitting in the bathtub, and his driven nature and tenacity in fighting against what he perceives as an injustice. Cranston was a dramatic actor before he became typecast after playing the hapless father in tv sitcom Malcolm In The Middle for six years, and it took his award winning role as Walter White in Breaking Bad to restore his reputation as a serious actor.
John Goodman brings his usual bluster and aggression to his performance as B-grade producer Frank King, while Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, etc) makes his Edward G Robinson, who named names to save his own reputation, something of a pathetic figure in stark contrast to his usual intimidating screen presence. Mirren is waspish and sharp as the poisonous Hopper, a rather nasty piece of work and single minded commentator without any redeeming qualities who fanned the flames of a red hating populace to boost circulation. However, screenwriter McNamara does give us a hint at why Hopper hates Hollywood and the men who run the studio town so fiercely, and it does eventually earn her a measure of pity and sympathy.
Elle Fanning is very good as Trumbo’s feisty eldest daughter Niki, who seems to have inherited his sense of justice and commitment. Diane Lane brings a sense of patience and understanding to her thankless role as Cleo, Trumbo’s long suffering but supportive wife. Comedian Louis C K is fine in a rare dramatic role as embattled fellow scriptwriter Arlen Hird, whose fictitious character is actually a composite of a couple of real life writers who were similarly blacklisted.
Trumbo is both thought provoking and hugely entertaining. But in tackling such serious subject matter and one of the darkest periods in Hollywood history in this conventional and often light hearted manner, there is a sense of an opportunity wasted with Trumbo. This story was covered more comprehensively in Peter Askin’s 2007 documentary of the same name.