Writer: John McNamara
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Louis C.K , Stephen Root, David James Elliott
Running time: 124mins
The lowdown: In post-World War 2 America, celebrated screenwriter and Communist Dalton Trumbo finds himself at the centre of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch hunts. Blacklisted, unable to work and facing jail, he decides to fight back.
The full verdict: America’s Red Scare witch hunts of the 40s and 50s remain a tarnish on Tinseltown’s sheen. Given the opportunity to enact its favourite story and stand up for the little guy hounded by villainous bullies, Hollywood buckled to HUAC, blacklisting artists and naming names.
And with flames of fear and paranoia again being fanned by right-wingers it is a fitting time to remind ourselves of the bad old days once more.
Modern audiences may not be familiar with Dalton Trumbo, but will have heard of Roman Holiday (credited to his friend Ian McLellan Hunter as Trumbo was blacklisted at the time) and Spartacus (Trumbo’s first onscreen credit once the blacklist’s power began to wane).
Irresistibly brought to life by Bryan Cranston, Trumbo is an actor’s dream. Leading the so-called “Hollywood 10”, filmmakers refusing to answer questions and prosecuted for contempt of Congress, he is principled, eccentric, and a World War 2 veteran. And a bag of contradictions, living on a spacious ranch, preferring his socialism with a generous splash of champagne.
Employing a sharp tongue to prick the pomposity of his enemies, his cigarette holder held aloft in exaggerated “I told you so” pose, Cranston’s Trumbo is a joy. Particularly when mocking shameless jingoist John Wayne (an impressive Elliott) for fighting WW2 from a Hollywood sound stage then taking credit for winning it.
He is matched in wit and determination by Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper, one-time silent movie star turned cold-blooded gossip columnist, swaying public opinion against first amendment rights and happily naming names.
Austin Powers director Jay Roach shoots the whole thing deceptively bright and breezy, high-key lighting lending an old-fashioned gloss (albeit swathed in noirish clouds of cigarette smoke). TV writer John McNamara’s script is peppered with witty banter, particularly when Kirk Douglas (O’Gorman) and authoritative director Otto Preminger (Berkel) turn up to employ Trumbo’s services, numbering the days of the blacklist.
But, neither director nor writer (nor cast) forget they are telling an essentially dark story of freedom curtailed and lives ruined.
Forced to work under pseudonyms for years, the Hollywood 10 find themselves in the unchecked capitalism of the black market, churning out quickies for B-movie producers (Goodman and Root, Goodman giving the film one of its most crowd-pleasing moments). Although this produced one masterpiece – 1950’s Gun Crazy – how many great movies went unmade because of foam-mouthed paranoia?
McNamara also notes the acid irony of the infamous Trumbo being honoured not once, but twice with Best Screenplay Academy Awards while on the blacklist, watching the ceremonies from his couch.
Much like Kevin Costner’s Thirteen Days, Trumbo insists on using the writer’s family life (including wife Diane Lane and daughter Elle Fanning) as shorthand for what’s at stake, as if freedom of thought isn’t high stakes enough.
But, this joins the 1976 Woody Allen-starring The Front as an engrossing account of one of Hollywood’s darkest hours.