There is something inherently satisfying about someone going up against a system that seems impossible to defeat, and after a drawn-out and emotional battle, finally emerges triumphant having made painful sacrifices.
The film, Trumbo, is about just such a man. World War II has just wrapped up and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is one of Hollywood’s leading screenwriters. The Cold War though, follows hot on its heels. In 1947 Trumbo and nine other screenwriters are condemned for their association with the Communist Party, through their support of better pay for organised labour in the film industry. Shortly after Trumbo signs a deal with MGM studios to make him the highest paid screenwriter in the business, the “Hollywood Ten” are hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was set up by Congress to investigate alleged Communist influences and propaganda in the film industry. It’s the most flabbergasting and bizarre thing. And yet, it happened.
The Hollywood Ten are defiant, and use their first amendment right to free speech to refuse testifying. Says Trumbo to furious committee member J. Parnell Thomas, when the latter asks if he’s ever been a member of the Communist Party, “Am I accused of a crime?” And he’s right. Belonging to the party was not criminalised. Despite this, the Ten are convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to confess to involvement in communism and to name others in the industry suspected of involvement. But, the Ten are hopeful the liberal majority Supreme Court will overturn this. However, the death of one of the liberal judges dashes that hope and they’re sentenced to prison; Dalton, to eleven months.
Dalton’s dry humour is present throughout. Once released from prison, he seems to take being blacklisted by the industry in his stride. Those on the list were forbidden from working, but Dalton saw an opportunity: churn out trashy B-grade scripts written under a pseudonym. Some of his other, more serious scripts, were credited to friends and colleagues, and two of those, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, won Academy Awards. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, and yet, Dalton and his family were all smiles and cheers as they watched, glued to the television screen, while the Oscars were being collected by someone else.
Bryan Cranston’s Trumbo (a role that’s earned him an Oscar nomination) is full of wit amidst his eccentricities. He may be full of quips, but the nights spent in the bathtub, cigarette in mouth, frantically writing, cutting out pieces of a script and adding others, hint at the immense pressure he was under to spew out copy like an automobile factory, just to make ends meet. And the betrayals of many of his friends, like actor Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), who crumbles under the pressure of not being able to find any roles, take their toll.
Helen Mirren does a stellar job as the haughty, vindictive, anti-Reds Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, who uses her words to contribute to the wave of communist hysteria, uplifting and destroying careers. James David Elliot plays a loutish John Wayne, who is a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (another factoid that made my eyes bulge. Who knew Duke was such an asshole? I don’t know if I can ever watch a John Wayne film again).
Trumbo is an eye-opening and damning, albeit almost unbelievable story about the the underhanded ugliness of Hollywood during the Cold War era. What happened feels like fiction. “Surely,” I thought, “something like this couldn’t possibly have happened.” But it did. Trumbo is reminiscent of that other extraordinary film about the U.S. government’s attack on the media during the Cold War, Good Night and Good Luck.
Dalton Trumbo’s removal from the blacklist finally came after actor Kirk Douglas insisted on crediting him for the script of Spartacus (often referred to as one of the best films ever made). Even after admitting to all the other scripts he wrote, Dalton only received credits and was awarded his Oscars, years later.
Trumbo is a fitting tribute to the bravery and undefeated spirit of a David taking on a Goliath.
Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning
Rating: 4 out of 5