“Trumbo” tells the true story of mid 20th century screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted for his affiliation with the Communist Party. This would seem a common story among the literati of Hollywood in the 1950s.
But Trumbo became a bit of a hero by using his wit and eloquence to stand up to those compiling the list. The appearance of his name in the opening credits of Otto Preminger’s 1960 film Exodus is considered the end of the age of the Hollywood blacklist.
Dalton Trumbo, played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), was the top screenwriter in Hollywood in 1947. But that October he stood before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to respond directly to their questions. For that, Trumbo spent eleven months of 1950 in prison for “contempt of congress”.
Movie poster for ‘Trumbo.’ Courtesy/Reel Deal Theater
After his release, Trumbo and his family survived only as he bailed out studios that had been saddled with poor scripts. By writing for another screenwriter, as he did with Roman Holiday (1953), or by working under a pseudonym, as he did with The Brave One (1956) he continued clandestinely to contribute to Hollywood film-making. Both these films won an Oscar for screenwriting, which he obviously could not publicly accept.
The movie Trumbo centers on these years 1950 to 1960, Dalton Trumbo’s struggle to make money while blacklisted, the fear-based culture building in Hollywood, the “Hollywood Ten” who did not capitulate (and served time in prison), their supposed friends who did give names, and the impact all of this had on the Trumbo family.
A friend and supporter in the early scenes is the actor Edward G. Robinson (embodied by Michael Stuhlbarg). Another notable role is that of screenwriter Arlen Hird (played by Louis C.K.), an idealist among the Hollywood Ten, suffering from lung cancer. (There is a lot of smoking in the film, as there was in the 1950s.) Making matter worse for everyone is Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren), using her Hollywood gossip column to call out suspected Communists.
At home, Cleo Trumbo (portrayed by the always lovely Diane Lane), holds the Trumbo family together; the three children, Nicola, Chris and Mitzi, struggle with their father’s ouster from the industry, his time away in prison when they are quite young, and later his obsession with keeping up with the work coming his way. They are played by a succession of actors as they age in the story, Elle Fanning having a big part as teenage Nicola.
The beauty of this important film is, not coincidently, its screenplay. Dalton Trumbo is a brilliant wordsmith and it is a treat to listen to him pontificate throughout. The film is, unfortunately, rated R “for language including some sexual references”. But it is a far cry from the crudeness of many of today’s R rated films. (See my review of Deadpool.) I consider Trumbo a “must see” for the history and heroic story it tells.