After practically having the frequently shown previews for Trumbo memorized (trailer), I finally saw the film itself. (Though one trailer scene with Helen Mirren didn’t actually appear in the movie. Weird.) This is the second movie in the past week that celebrates the role of righteous writers in upholding social values: Trumbo supporting “freedom of thought and expression,” and Spotlight pursuing “truth, however uncomfortable.” I’m basking in reflected authorial glory!
As you undoubtedly know, Trumbo is the story of the Hollywood 10, writers blacklisted during the communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s. Joe McCarthy and all that. When called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Dalton Trumbo (played beautifully by Bryan Cranston) and the other nine refused to give Congress information about their beliefs or to rat out others in the film industry. As a result, a number of them including Trumbo went to prison for contempt of Congress (“I am contemptuous of Congress,” he said after the HUAC hearing).
He was in the slammer for 10 months and once he was out could no longer get work.
Meanwhile, some industry personages—in the movie, producer Buddy Ross (Roger Bart) and actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg)—saw their careers going up in smoke and did testify (though in real life, Robinson did not name names). The movie effectively skewers that Great American Flag-Waving Hero, John Wayne, who managed to avoid any military service during World War II and Korea. “If you’re going to act as if you won the war single-handedly,” Trumbo tells him, “it would be more believable if you’d actually served,” as he and so many of his black-listed colleagues had.
They represent the tip of the iceberg of people harmed by the virulent anti-Communism of the day, and although the movie is about the Hollywood 10, it’s really about the Hollywood One, Trumbo, the most accomplished of the lot. The composite character Arlen Hird has the unenviable job of being Trumbo’s verbal sparring partner and representing an amalgam of several of the harder-line writers’ views. Trumbo is unfailingly supportive of him, even though he inserts his political views into scripts (which Trumbo rewrites) and clearly doesn’t trust Trumbo. (This is where the “You talk like a radical, but you live like a rich man” line from the trailer fits in.)
While not a lot of acting was required of Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife, she did a fine job, and Helen Mirren is perfect as the odious Hedda Hopper, blackmailer without portfolio. As writer Hird, comedian Louis C.K.’s acting inexperience shows a bit, as he’s up against such acting superstars, while John Goodman is all prickly geniality and Alan Tudyk plays a credible Ian McLellan Hunter. Hunter wins the Academy Award for the Roman Holiday script (the Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn classic), but Trumbo wrote it. In fact, Trumbo and the others write many screenplays for which they receive credit only belatedly, if at all. The back of the blacklist can’t be broken until a few Hollywood luminaries are willing to give appropriate screen credit.
Directed by Jay Roach with a solid script from John McNamara. While in their vision, the character of Trumbo doesn’t change much over the course of the story—except perhaps to learn not to take what he most cherishes for granted—“he is no more or less principled at the end than he was at the start,” said Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. He is forgiving, though, and in the end acknowledges that all humans are a mix of good acts and bad (except perhaps for Hedda Hopper).
The real opportunity for learning lies with the audience. While those anti-Communist days may now seem rather quaint—Congress taking on a bunch of two-fingered typists—there always are people who believe they know best what other people should think, who believe others are too dim or inattentive to grasp hidden political messages, who think citizens are like children who have to be protected from difficult ideas. That, Trumbo seems to say, is still the danger. Another film well worth the price of a ticket.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 71%; audiences 84%.