Trumbo is a very light-handed look at the Hollywood Blacklist at the end of WWII and its impact on one of America’s most prolific screenwriters. Don’t misunderstand me – the Hollywood Blacklist was one of the darkest points not only in American politics but for creatives all around, but this isn’t a bleak film noir of tragedy and discontent. After all, we know what it’s like to live through a scare of ideological differences in the modern age. We’re not too far removed (if at all) from the fear-mongering of Post-9/11 America.
You could say that Trumbo is a by the numbers pic of strength, perseverance, redemption, and triumph, exactly what you’d expect from a Hollywood picture. The twist is it’s true.
If you’re expecting another dry docu-drama about stuff that happed 70-some years ago, you’re immediately touched by the human aspect of it all. Perhaps we’re off-balance because this is the Late 40’s American and we’ve just won a war and isn’t this supposed to be the Good Old Days?
Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is living the American Dream in 1940’s Hollywood. He’s powerful in the way a screenwriter can be because he’s good and he writes picture people want to see. He signs deals, drinks with friends, enjoys life and of course writes. Then come whispers of Communism in Hollywood, but Trumbo isn’t afraid. Sure, he’s a proud American Communist (it’s not illegal) and assists in organizing studio for better wages and working conditions. Never mind that studios are losing money, it’s Communism infiltrating the American psyche and sending State Secrets to Russian. What if they warp young minds? What if America has to do the war thing all over again? Won’t someone think of the children?
Trumbo loses his job and is hauled before the Congressional House UnAmerican Activities Committee. “Are you now or have you ever been” becomes the unrelenting tattoo of Congress and colleagues alike, and for a long while, the best screenwriter in Hollywood can’t get a job writing copy for cereal cartons.
Except if you know your history, you already know how this goes, because Dalton is crafty.
This isn’t a movie about a man tortured by his demons and this movie could have ventured off into a hundred different directions – drugs, civil rights, prison life – all of those life tangents spanning 30 years could have been their own tangential sidebar, but those would have been the weighty details disrupting the flow. Trumbo’s life, like any good movie, wasn’t defined by any single moment. He never stops being himself – witty and acerbic and prolific, even and especially when no one is buying – and if anything that’s his own fault. Dalton Trumbo may have become a smarter and wiser man, but he never changed. The world changed around him, his family grew up, the industry expanded, but he never stopped being Trumbo. He was a Communist living the American Dream, and even after it was taken away from him, he dug in and did what it took to get it back.
I rather liked this movie. First it was never dry. You absolutely can’t be bored with the script penned by Michigan alum John McNamara, based on the biography Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Alexander Cook. I have no doubt large chunks of dialogue gold were lifted wholesale from the biography because the characters were prone to inspiring monologues in tense, tight situations. We’re talking about Americans facing the threat of imprisonment, interment camps and loss of employment over political leanings, but you never felt so despondent as to bursts into tears. Some people may have a problem with this because there are no beatings, prison rapes and car crashes, and it’s the truth most blacklisted screenwriters didn’t have it so great until the blacklist was officially lifted in 1975 – but you know what? This movie is about Dalton Trumbo, and how he basically uses the system to go around the system.
It does have very human backstabbing in Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper played brilliantly by Dame Helen Mirran. She circles the wagons to see Trumbo go down, pushing the right buttons of fear, patriotism and American Values, resorting to rumor and innuendo to get her way. She secures her place in history as a woman desperate to keep the creative flow of Hollywood clean and pure by keeping out the Communists, at the cost of the lives of people she believed beneath her and only barely worthy of her scorn
Bryan Cranston makes the movie with his presence, but it couldn’t have felt so real without the supporting characters of Trumbo’s life – his devoted wife, Cleo (Dian Lane), the members of the Hollywood Ten, the other screenwriters blacklisted by studios, played in part by Alan Tudyk and Louis C.K, his children, and the collective hands of everyone that moved in and out of his life. In a sense, his life was a working model for American Communism and everyone had a role to play to keep the wheels rolling.
A lesser script in the mouth of an over-ambitious actor could have turned this movie into a melodramatic yet topical modern poke at the current political climate. It would have made the movie less about Dalton and more about Freedom ™. rendering this man’s life dull and uneventful and ultimately tragic. Dalton Trumbo is not a tragic figure. He is a legend with a legacy. Bryan Cranston slips into the mustache easily and makes us believe, even when things seemed their bleakest that Trumbo is able to write his own Hollywood ending.