‘Trumbo’ movie review: Highly entertaining ‘history lesson’ toplining an outstanding Bryan Cranston
Full disclosure: on the wall in my study hangs a poster – the iconic photograph of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, with black-horned rim glasses, handlebar mustache, a smoke dangling from the end of a dramatic cigarette holder. He’s sitting – stark naked – in a tub surrounded by his particular writing apparatus. He’s looking directly into the camera of the photographer, his daughter Mitzi.
Dalton Trumbo’s son, Christopher Trumbo, gave me the poster after my interview with him for the release of Peter Askin’s 2007 documentary also titled Trumbo. That film combines archival footage, including family movies and photographs, with performances of the senior Trumbo’s letters to his family during their many years of turmoil before and through the blacklist, including his time in prison. The letters are read by, among others, Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, Liam Neeson, Donald Sutherland, and Paul Giamatti.
Trumbo is a good film, and its poster is one of two movie posters hanging in my home. Presently, I will tell you what the other one is.
Helen Mirren & Michael Stuhlbarg: Remarkable ensemble
Trumbo, the narrative film, stars Bryan Cranston giving a great performance as Dalton Trumbo in a movie that is highly entertaining while still managing in nearly every scene to shovel the history of the blacklist at the audience. It deftly disguises the history lesson behind a barrage of remarkable actors playing old movie stars and period notables, all interwoven with clips of actual old movie stars and period notables, doing what they did and saying what they said at the time. Some of it brave, much of it scandalous, a lot of it cowardly.
Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, Key Largo) and Helen Mirren as Los Angeles Times columnist Hedda Hopper are particularly good. As seen in Trumbo, Robinson and Hopper bear heavy burdens for the things they said and did – though in the end only the former recognized his deeds as dastardly. David James Elliott (TV’s JAG), as the uber-patriotic John Wayne, is also especially entertaining.
Another noteworthy supporting cast member
Trumbo‘s supporting cast, whether portraying figures we may not be as familiar with or amalgamations of historical figures, is noteworthy as well. Louis C.K., for instance, is excellent as the fictional character Arlen Hird, who feels like a combination of screenwriters Albert Maltz (The Naked City) and Samuel Ornitz (Portia on Trial). The character gives voice to the many true believers on the left who were less famous and thus even more vulnerable than many of those who would eventually be known as the Hollywood Ten (among whom were both Maltz and Ornitz).
But it’s Cranston, as the titular character, who steals the film.
Bryan Cranston: ‘So good’ as Dalton Trumbo
One of the reasons Bryan Cranston is so good is because Dalton Trumbo was so good. The film is based on Bruce Cook’s 1977 book, adapted for the screen by John McNamara. The latter is a venerable television writer and producer (The Fugitive, Prime Suspect) with an eclectic range not unlike that of the venerable Trumbo, who wrote every kind of screenplay in every conceivable genre – e.g., the romantic drama Kitty Foyle, the crime thriller Gun Crazy, the romantic comedy Roman Holiday, the historical epic Spartacus, the anti-war political drama Johnny Got His Gun.
Besides, Trumbo was such an endless trove of intelligence, wit, and irony that one could say that in effect, simply by voicing his thoughts during his lifetime, he actually “wrote” most of Bryan Cranston’s Trumbo dialogue. Indeed, if Dalton Trumbo was speaking, he was certainly saying something true – and likely something funny or otherwise ironic. Trumbo both wrote and spoke great lines.
‘Hollywood Fights Back’
Trumbo begins in 1947, before the testimony of the Hollywood Ten. This framing is particularly astute, covering the “Hollywood Fights Back” period, generally forgotten when the history of the blacklist is discussed.
During this short window, some of the biggest stars and most important figures in the industry valiantly asserted their First, Fourth and, occasionally, Fifth Amendment rights. Among them were Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, John Huston, Marsha Hunt, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Lucille Ball, and movie tough guys Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. Supported by the heads of most of the major studios, they pushed back against the Red baiters, including Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Next in line is the testimony of the Hollywood Ten and Dalton Trumbo in particular. In the late ’40s, Trumbo’s indignant response to the questions by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) was met with derision. Cranston plays it word for word and with the exact same indignation.
Hedda Hopper attacked both him and the studios in print. The studio heads abandoned the liberal cause and so did most of the liberals. For fear of losing their careers and livelihoods, Humphrey Bogart claimed to have been duped by communists while Edward G. Robinson degraded himself before the HUAC.
The rest is history and fodder for a good movie.
More than the ‘historical facts’
Trumbo, however, is concerned with more than just the historical facts. Director Jay Roach has crafted a film as much about the human tragedy of the blacklist as the politics of the society that created it. Interesting stuff for the director of three Austin Powers movies and Meet the Fockers (and, admittedly, of the made-for-TV political drama Game Change).
We see the human tragedies mostly through the travails of Trumbo and his family, as they tire of his crusading, and his friends (most of whom were not as rich as him), as they also tire of his crusading. We feel the weight of it all, but we also feel it lift; as by hook and by crook, the blacklist is eventually broken under the weight of its own lunacy.
The details are in the movie. They are fascinating, thrilling, and enlightening, even if condensed here to form the third act, which probably wraps things up a bit too fast.
Social devastation of McCarthyism
As an episode in American history, the era of McCarthyism was much more widespread than the Hollywood Blacklist. It was devastating to numerous individual Americans and their families from all walks of life.
All kinds of people were called communists and driven from their work, to ill health and even suicide. Some were and some weren’t communists. Some were socialists. Of course, the problem of the day was that too many Americans – reactionary Americans – couldn’t understand that the very issue of political persecution was un-American.
‘Trumbo’ movie weakness
If Trumbo has a weakness, it’s the film’s failure to convey the depth and breadth of the Red Scare. Or the fact that it forever diminished America as an idea. America was less after the blacklist and that diminishment can be seen in the myriad investigations into one thing or another, or one person or another, over all the years since the formation of the HUAC and right through to the Army-McCarthy hearings that finally ended it all – so to speak.
Trumbo skips most of that, fast-forwarding instead to a moment in the future, 1970 (now the distant past), when it was all over and our hero is in reflection. At a Writer’s Guild ceremony, where many of the people who had betrayed him sat, Dalton Trumbo graciously accepted a lifetime achievement award and once again – the great writer and humanist – provided the dialogue for the motion picture that would bear his name so many decades later.
To find out what he says, you’ll need to see the movie as to the best of my knowledge the ceremony was not televised. I can only tell you he was brilliant.
Dir.: Jay Roach.
Scr.: John McNamara.
From Bruce Cook’s book.
Cast: Bryan Cranston (as Dalton Trumbo). Helen Mirren (as Hedda Hopper). Diane Lane (as Dalton Trumbo’s wife Cleo).
Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson). Louis C.K. Elle Fanning. John Goodman. David Maldonado. John Getz (as director Sam Wood). David James Elliott. James DuMont.
Alan Tudyk (as screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter). Richard Portnow (as MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer). Stephen Root.
Dean O’Gorman (as actor Kirk Douglas). Roger Bart. Garrett Hines. Christian Berkel (as director Otto Preminger).
Rick Kelly (as U.S. President John F. Kennedy). John Mark Skinner. Mark Webster (as Alvah Bessie). Gus Rhodes (as Albert Maltz). Robert D’Arensbourg (as Adrian Scott).
Hollywood Blacklist trivia
Here’s a bit of Hollywood Blacklist trivia, just because:
- Lionel Stander, who played Max on the ’80s television series Hart to Hart, was blacklisted.
- The great director Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City) was an American who made Rififi in France because he was blacklisted.
- The great director Joseph Losey (The Servant, The Go-Between), hounded by the HUAC, fled to England after completing a controversial 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s M.
- A great companion film for Trumbo would be Good Night, and Good Luck., George Clooney’s 2005 drama that explores the McCarthy era from the point of view of the media.
- Ironically, Christopher Trumbo, who became a film and TV writer, co-wrote the John Wayne cop actioner Brannigan (1975).
The Hollywood Ten
The Hollywood Ten (all screenwriters or at least best-known for their screenplays, unless otherwise noted) were:
- Alvah Bessie (Northern Pursuit, Objective, Burma!).
- Director-screenwriter Herbert J. Biberman (The Master Race, Together Again)
- Lester Cole (Hostages, None Shall Escape).
- Director Edward Dmytryk (Hitler’s Children, Tender Comrade).
- Ring Lardner Jr. (Cloak and Dagger, Forever Amber).
- John Howard Lawson (The Pagan, Bachelor Apartment).
- Albert Maltz (This Gun for Hire, Pride of the Marines).
- Samuel Ornitz (The Man Who Reclaimed His Head, Little Orphan Annie).
- Producer-screenwriter Adrian Scott (Murder, My Sweet; Crossfire).
- Dalton Trumbo.
Trumbo movie cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston, and Trumbo movie trailer: Bleecker Street Media.