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A Hollywood Ten Story: Trumbo

Updated on December 10, 2015

The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo openly admitted to being a member of the Communist party. He did this when that act was not illegal. The movie Trumbo covers nearly a quarter century in the life of the famed screenwriter. Bryan Cranston stars as Trumbo, who had become the highest paid screenwriter in post-World War II Hollywood. As this was happening, the House Un-American Activities Committee started its crusade against Communists and their sympathizers. Hollywood people who supported the HUAC efforts included gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott). When HUAC subpoenaed Trumbo and others to talk about possible Communist influences in the film industry, they refused to cooperate. For his part, Trumbo went to federal prison for nearly a year. Others in the industry who felt the HUAC pressure, including Trumbo friend and supporter Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), told what they knew and were allowed to continue working.

On his release, Trumbo finds himself unemployed and virtually unemployable. He and his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) sell their California ranch home and move into more modest accommodations, where his actions have clearly been noted. He does, however, get help from fellow writer Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), who fronts the script for Roman Holiday. Meanwhile, Trumbo works out an arrangement with Frank King (John Goodman), a B-movie producer who's willing who's willing to let Trumbo and other blacklisted writers work on already submitted scripts and submit others based on his studio's needs. Among those who work for King is Trumbo's terminally ill friend Arlen Hird (Louis C. K.), who wonders why Trumbo doesn't push King to do material like he did for the major studios. Dalton's home becomes a cottage industry of sorts, with couriers coming at all hours of the day and night. This puts a strain at times on the family, especially on oldest child Niki (Elle Fanning), who pursues causes close to her. Keeping his friend's words in mind, Trumbo does write a script outside the studio norm that King agrees to make - and it gets Oscar recognition. While Dalton addresses the question of his authorship on this effort, some Hollywood heavyweights visit, expressing interest in having Trumbo openly work on big projects again.

Trumbo, which is based on a biography of the writer by Bruce Cook, is a good look at a man who found a way to persevere in spite of people being encouraged to scorn him. Trumbo was never in league with Stalin or with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, but he became convicted by a society obsessed with finding Communist conspiracy where none existed. With a wife and a young family, Trumbo had to change his way of making money, and became, in a way, more subversive than he had ever been in the mainstream, when he called for fairer treatment of workers. The screen adaptation by John McNamara is good, and director Jay Roach, whose credits include the Austin Powers movies, takes another good look into popular politics, as he did with his HBO movies Recount and Game Change. The Cold War pitted Communist against Capitalist, with no grey area at the height of blacklisting. While I enjoy the tale in Trumbo, Roach doesn't have the emotional impact of better screen tales about the era, such as The Front and Good Night And Good Luck. Trumbo does remind viewers of the dangers of summary dismissals based on a person's beliefs.

Cranston delivers a very strong performance as the very conflicted title character. He embraced beliefs that call for a sharing of the wealth, yet he had more material riches than others before he was blacklisted. He still makes the rounds selling his services after Hollywood shunned him. He devotes himself to family, yet won't break away from his writing to celebrate the birthday of one of his children. Yet, he also shows introspection as he talks about the era that cost him opportunity. The most outstanding in support is Mirren as Hopper, the influential columnist who never stops digging for dirt, unlike so many other supporters of HUAC. Lane and C. K. do fine work as the two people who make Dalton keep a focus on the things that should matter the most to him. Goodman is enjoyable as Frank King, a studio owner with no pretensions about his movies. Fanning, Stuhlbarg, and Tudyk have small but strong appearances, as does Stephen Root as Frank's brother Hymie, the money man of their studio.

The release of Trumbo comes at a time where people seem to be as dismissive of Muslims as many once were of Communists. There were well-intentioned reasons to be wary of those who lived as Communists, but these reasons usually didn't have credibility. People simply used their status to question the every move of others. After a while, most will grow weary of the process of criticizing every single aspect of those whose ideologies don't conform with theirs. While some accepted the task of finding Communists by bullying everyone they thought wore red without the white and blue, Dalton Trumbo drew a small bath, lit a cigarette, and poured a drink with the tools of his trade in front of him. He had stories to tell, and he found ways that he could tell them.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Trumbo three stars. A way with words.


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      Pat Mills 2 years ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      Thanks Mel. I am not a supporter of communism, but certainly any concerned person should defend freedom of expression, as long as that expression is not untrue or treasonous. I agree it's good to see an actor like Cranston get the lead role in a big screen movie and fare well. Thankfully, he won't factor into any potential Godzilla sequels. Merry Christmas to you and yours as well.

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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      This looks like something I could enjoy. I like Cranston, and while not a commie, I am passionately devoted to freedom of speech. I am glad to see Cranston is doing something a little more challenging than Godzilla. Great review, Merry Christmas!