There couldn’t be a more relevant time for Trumbo to be in cinemas given the hysteria sweeping America with regard to the ‘threat’ posed by those from other countries, cultures and/or religious persuasions. Whilst governments of today use immigration and ‘boat people’ as a tactic to create a sense of panic amongst the populous and deflect attention away from the more important issues, in 1947 it was Communism being touted as a threat to America’s safety, security and way of life. As with the immigration debate of today, the government of the time didn’t have to prove there was a threat, they just had to make people scared enough to support the vilification of those being accused of subversive behaviours imply because of their political beliefs or, as is the case here, because of their unwillingness to cooperate with those desperately seeking scapegoats. As such, Hollywood became the focus of investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee due to the perceived potential for communists to use movies as a tool for the dispersion of a political agenda that was somehow a threat to the good ole US of A.
Front and centre of the HUAC witch hunt was talented screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo, an admitted Communist who became a pariah in a fight that saw him blacklisted from the industry and ultimately jailed for daring to support a political system that challenged the hegemonic social and political structures of the day. Played with a frenetic fervour by Bryan Cranston, Trumbo is a talented if not particularly likeable man whose commitment to the Communist cause seemed at odds with a lifestyle considerably more extravagant than the vast majority of Americans. Given that belonging to the Communist Party was not a crime, it was Trumbo’s refusal to give testimony – and thereby incriminate others – at HUAC hearings that saw him incarcerated for two years along with fellow members of a collective dubbed the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who also refused cooperate with the HUAC. Once released from prison, Trumbo was blacklisted by all of the Hollywood studios and resorted to writing and ‘fixing’ screenplays for lowbrow production houses such King Brothers Productions (John Goodman is great fun as Frank King). It was during this period that Trumbo, writing under a pseudonym, won his first Academy Award for The Brave One. He would subsequently win another Oscar for Roman Holiday, crediting the script to fellow writer Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), who collected the statuette. The beginning of the end for the blacklist came in 1960 when Trumbo was credited for the screenplays of Otto Preminger’s Exodus and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.
Working from a book by Bruce Cook, director Jay Roach paints a picture of a Hollywood divided in which friendships and careers are destroyed in the name of serving the hysterical paranoia of a government desperate to deflect attention from their own shortcomings. Screen icon John Wayne (David James Elliott) is presented as an arrogant bully, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) a paranoid racist (among many other unsavoury personality traits) and actor Edward G. Robinson (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) as weak-willed and selfish. It is a fascinating insight into just how ridiculous the HUAC investigations were and the impact it had on those who stood accused. The costumes are a delight, capturing the sartorial sophistication of the time; although Hedda’s collection of hats only serves to further emphasise the ridiculousness of a most loathsome character.
A talented, eccentric and, at times, unpleasant man, Trumbo did most of his writing in the bath, cigarette dangling, berating any member of the family who dare interrupt. Cranston is terrific in the role, perfectly embodying the gifted writer whose energetic, verbose and highly articulate way of speaking proves a source of irritation for those around him, including Arlen Hird (an impressive Louis C.K.), a composite character based on five real-life members of the Hollywood Ten. Diane Lane and Elle Fanning are also good as Trumbo’s wife and eldest daughter respectively, while New Zealander Dan O’Gorman’s uncanny resemblance makes him an excellent choice to play Kirk Douglas. It is not easy to decide whether Trumbo is a good person for his refusal to bend in the face of enormous pressure at great personal sacrifice, or whether he is a selfish bastard who put everything ahead of his family. With Trumbo, Roach has found the right balance between humour and drama to deliver a fast-moving examination of a particularly shameful period in America’s political history.