Film Review: Trumbo (USA, 2015)

Dalton Trumbo was a political activist, a writer, a family man, and a man of principle. In Trumbo, a new film starring Bryan Cranston in the leading role, we’re taken back to a time when going against the grain was grounds for treason and imprisonment.  It’s one of the most intriguing – and ghastly – times in Hollywood history.

In the 1940s, Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters.  After the war, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy had blacklisted Trumbo and 9 other screenwriters/directors/producers (known collectively as the Hollywood Ten), which meant they were banned from working in Hollywood and jailed for the “un-American” views (aligning themselves with communist ideals in an era where relations between the USA and Russia (ad later, the USSR) declined

The story of Dalton Trumbo is, uplifting, and its lesson (of injustice and shame without any proof of real “wrongdoing”) is current.  It’s a worthy screenplay written by a Trumbo-esque team of hardworking, earnest storytellers.  Director Jay Roach (of Meet The Parents and Meet the Fockers fame) and writer John McNamara (mostly known for his work in television, producing Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) did a wonderful job of bringing Trumbo’s tale to life. They base their work on author Bruce Cook’s biography.   

Cranston’s wonderful as Dalton Trumbo, but then you’d expect that from a man who could make people feel both sympathy and fear for his most famous character, Walter White/Heisenberg.  His measured portrayal of the celebrated writer showcases Cranston’s range and versatility, and he captures the essence of his character well.  He’s both a loving father and a self-absorbed one, understanding full well his eldest daughter’s (played well by Elle Fanning) devotion to causes she believes in yet refuses to stop working to enjoy her birthday dinner with the rest of the family.  As an activist, Cranston’s Trumbo shows a man who holds his dignity together even though his name and reputation are being dragged through the mud.  Producer Janice Williams says of Cranston’s performance, “We had all been watching Bryan Cranston evolve as Walter White in Breaking Bad, and we felt there was something in his performance that was the epitome of what we needed. Bryan is able to play contradictory characters with ease. He has deep layers of sadness and righteousness. He brought everything that was needed to the role.”

Whilst the film is first and foremost the story of how a man survives McCarthyism, the heart of the film is how Trumbo’s family are affected by his imprisonment and his drive to continue to work after he is set free.  Trumbo’s wife Cleo (Diane Lane) is a strong woman in her own right, holding down the family fort while her husband is locked up.  The toll it took on the family would have been significant, and Lane’s portrayal of Cleo is one of strength and poise.  Whilst she’s not the family member with the fame, she is the one who can stand up to Dalton.  Lane says, “She was very devoted to her husband and her children and her determination to protect them gave her strength”.  Of the McCarthyism portrayed throughout the film, Lane notes, “It’s frightening how little history people, myself included, are aware of. The human drama behind it is shocking. This story will be relevant as long as patriotism can be hijacked by whatever group is in charge”.

Another cast member of note is actor and comedian Louis C.K, playing Arlen Hind.  The character of Hind was based on several blacklisted screenwriters, and serves as the man who will not bend his thoughts or views, sometimes to his detriment.  Director Jay Roach says, “We cast Louis C.K. as a cynical, occasionally bitter, but often funny man who gets how screwed up what’s going on really is and who can articulate it in a way that will make you laugh. He finds the absurdity in the situation in a way that some dramatic actors might not.”  Whilst Trumbo is the idealist, Hind is the combative one.  If you’ve never seen Louis C.K in anything other than comedy, this is the film to see him show off his dramatic skills.

Two other supporting cast members, Helen Mirren and John Goodman, play Hedda Hopper and Frank King respectively.  Hedda Hopper’s misplaced sense of patriotism comes off as a little self-serving, perhaps willing to name names in Hollywood to be blacklisted because it assisted her role as the top Hollywood gossip columnist of the time.  Mirren’s portrayal of Hopper is calculating and unsympathetic, the perfect foil for Trumbo’s high mindedness.  John Goodman as B-movie producer Frank King is wonderful.  He’s also a little self-serving, but King’s actions, unknowingly, help to get Trumbo and his friends un-listed, and also helps Trumbo gain an Oscar.  “He and his brothers hired blacklisted writers and got screenplays by some of the greatest writers in America for bargain prices. If that allowed them to make ends meet by writing under pseudonyms, it was an afterthought”. It’s worth noting that Trumbo’s time with King earned him an Oscar award.

Trumbo might be a movie buff’s dream film, not only because of the wonderful performances in the film but because it’s as much a part of US political history as it is about Hollywood history.  It’s an important film.

The closing credits of the film show the real Dalton Trumbo giving an interview on TV.  “We have our names back again”, he tells the interviewer.  Trumbo is finally recognised for the work he had done in Hollywood, and also acknowledges that his name, his reputation, are all a person has, and if you don’t fight to protect your name, you may be left with nothing.  Dalton Trumbo spoke with a truly heroic voice.  

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Trumbo is screening in cinemas now

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