- Trumbo (2015) movie review: With some not inconsiderable assistance from Dalton Trumbo himself, Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston delivers a first-rate performance as the blacklisted left-wing Hollywood screenwriter known as one of the Hollywood Ten.
- Trumbo earned Bryan Cranston a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
Trumbo movie review: Greatly entertaining ‘history lesson’ starring an outstanding Bryan Cranston as the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter
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 – star 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 I interviewed him for the release of Peter Askin’s 2007 documentary Trumbo.
That film combines archival footage, including family movies, with performances of the senior Trumbo’s letters to his family during their many years of turmoil before and through the Hollywood 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.
Remarkable movie ensemble
Now, on to the 2015 narrative movie Trumbo: Directed by Jay Roach from a screenplay by John McNamara – adapting Bruce Cook’s 1977 Dalton Trumbo biography – and starring Bryan Cranston as the title character, Trumbo succeeds in being greatly entertaining while still managing in nearly every scene to shovel the history of the blacklist at the audience.
The film deftly disguises the history lesson with the assistance of 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 gossip 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 may have acknowledged his deeds as dastardly.
Others in Trumbo’s supporting cast, whether portraying figures we may not be as familiar with or amalgamations of historical figures, are noteworthy as well.
David James Elliott (of TV’s JAG) is effective as the uber-patriotic John Wayne, while Louis C.K. is excellent as the fictional 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).
Yet it’s Bryan Cranston who carries the film.
One of the reasons Cranston is so good is because Trumbo was so good.
Adapter John McNamara is a venerable television writer and producer (The Fugitive, Prime Suspect) with an eclectic range not unlike that of the venerable Trumbo, who worked on every kind of screenplay in every conceivable genre – e.g., the romantic drama Kitty Foyle, the crime thriller Gun Crazy (Millard Kaufman as his front), the romantic comedy Roman Holiday (Ian McLellan Hunter was his front), the historical epic Spartacus, the anti-war political drama Johnny Got His Gun (which he also directed).
Besides, Trumbo was such an endless trove of intelligence, irony, and wit 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.
After all, if Dalton Trumbo was speaking, he was likely saying something true – and just as likely something funny or ironic.
Hollywood Blacklist beginnings
John McNamara’s Trumbo screenplay 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.
Next in line is the testimony of the Hollywood Ten and Dalton Trumbo in particular. In the late 1940s, Trumbo’s indignant response to the questions by the House Un-American 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.
Beyond 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 and friends (most of whom were not as rich as him), as they all 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.
As an episode in American history, McCarthyism – named after Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin – 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.
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 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings that finally – so to speak – would end it all.
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 sat many of those who had betrayed him, 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.
Director: Jay Roach.
Screenplay: John McNamara.
From Bruce Cook’s 1977 book.
Cast: Bryan Cranston (as Dalton Trumbo). Diane Lane (as Dalton Trumbo’s wife Cleo). Helen Mirren (as Hedda Hopper). Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson). Louis C.K. Elle Fanning. John Goodman. David Maldonado. John Getz (as Sam Wood). David James Elliott (as John Wayne). James DuMont (as J. Parnell Thomas). Alan Tudyk (as Ian McLellan Hunter). Richard Portnow (as Louis B. Mayer). Stephen Root. Dean O’Gorman (as Kirk Douglas). Roger Bart. Garrett Hines. Christian Berkel (as Otto Preminger). Rick Kelly (as John F. Kennedy). John Mark Skinner. Mark Webster (as Alvah Bessie). Gus Rhodes (as Albert Maltz). Robert D’Arensbourg (as Adrian Scott).
“Trumbo (2015) Movie Review” notes
Hollywood Blacklist trivia
Here’s a bit of Hollywood Blacklist trivia, just because:
- Lionel Stander, who played Max on the 1980s television series Hart to Hart, was blacklisted.
- The great director Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City) made Rififi in France because he was blacklisted.
- Hounded by the HUAC, the great director Joseph Losey (The Servant, The Go-Between) 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.
- Somewhat 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 the following:
- 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.
And lastly, the other movie poster hanging in my home is an Argentinean theatre lobby one-sheet for the 1983 horror thriller El Ansia, known in English as The Hunger.
“Trumbo (2015) Movie” endnotes
Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston Trumbo movie images: Bleecker Street Media.
“Trumbo Movie (2015) Review: Flawless Cranston” last updated in January 2022.