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Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's successful career in 1940s Hollywood is jeopardised when he is blacklisted for his political beliefs.
Dalton Trumbo made a famous speech in 1970 to the Writer's Guild of America, accepting a lifetime achievement award, in which he said it would do no good, when people looked back on the blacklist years, to search for heroes or villains. "There weren't any; there were only victims".
Some of his colleagues thought he was too magnanimous, given that he and the rest of the Hollywood Ten spent a year in jail, but it was part of his princely nature.
|Actors||Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren|
In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood's top screenwriter, until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.
Jay Roach's film uses that speech as its finale, after putting the boot into a good number of the cohort on the right, from John Wayne to columnist Hedda Hopper and director Sam Wood, who would happily have fanned the flames on Trumbo's pyre. That's fair enough: those who encouraged the Hollywood witch-hunt deserve all they get, within the bounds of accuracy.
Like most historical films, Trumbo has an uneasy relationship with that word.
Gossip queen Hopper wasn't exactly the Witchfinder General we see here, but once you cast Helen Mirren, the size of the role increases to match her stardom, growing like Hedda's hats. Mirren plays her as a well-dressed version of Judy from the puppet show – thwack, thwack, thwack to all the Hollywood commies.
With Jay Roach, director of all three Austin Powers films, at the helm we expect a little sexing up. Roach doesn't disappoint: he gives us lots of gags, even as he tries to tell a straight story.
Most notable among these is John Goodman's scene-stealing turn as Frank King, the one-time slot machine mogul who moved into low-budget movie production in the 1940s, employing many of the blacklisted writers when no one else would.
King and his brothers made some good pictures (Gun Crazy, Dillinger) but mostly by accident. They were relentlessly cheap. Frank and his brother Hymie (Stephen Root) can't believe it when Trumbo comes looking for a job. The man had been getting $75,000 a picture at MGM and now he's willing to work for $1200?
Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) in Trumbo.
The film is a labour of love for Bryan Cranston, as Trumbo. As Hollywood's greatest screenwriter, embattled but not beaten, he embodies the old Hemingway definition of courage: "grace under pressure".
As the film opens in 1947, he has been a member of the Communist Party of the USA for four years. He is rich, living in a ranch outside Los Angeles with his adoring wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three young children. He often writes in the bath to soothe his aching back, with scotch and cigarettes fuelling his flow. He talks like a character in a restoration play, which drives some people crazy.
When the House un-American Activities Committee subpoenas arrive, Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), another of the Hollywood Ten, complains about his high-falutin' language.
Students of history will note that Hird never existed: he's a composite. I couldn't work out why the story needed him. Admittedly, it's hard to juggle 10 characters, even if they were all interesting men, but it would have been nice if screenwriter John McNamara had tried.
There are good small roles for Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson), David James Elliott (as John Wayne), Dean O'Gorman (as Kirk Douglas) and Christian Berkel (as Otto Preminger), but we barely get a glimpse of Ring Lardner jnr , Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Edward Dmytryk or John Howard Lawson – all of whom also went to jail too for defying HUAC's famous question: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"
Still, the film does capture the fear and paranoia of these events. Trumbo gives us an effective ringside seat at a brutal and traumatic game in which everyone had to choose where they stood.
HUAC already had the names before the hearings; they just wanted to hear them admit they were 'reds'. A lot of people caved in, for fear of losing their livelihood. Trumbo stood up to them and paid a high price. So did his family and they never had a choice.
There have been several films about this period. Trumbo is neither the best nor worst. It's a little simplistic with its white hat/black hat characters, but dramatically engaging, with a towering performance from Cranston.