by Alan Yudman
The subject of the Hollywood Blacklist has been tackled before in movies like GUILTY BY SUSPICION and THE FRONT. The first features Robert DeNiro as a fictitious director who is named as a communist and is blacklisted. The second is also based on real stories, but centers on a fictional character who is used as a “front” for blacklisted screenwriters. TRUMBO on the other hand is based on an actual Hollywood screenwriter. Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo who admits to being a Communist and decides to fight back against the injustice of the House un-American Activities Committee because he believes the committee is the real un-American body. He fails, is held in contempt of Congress and goes to prison for a year. When he returns home he has to work, but cannot attach his name to anything for fear of the net being cast around other innocent people. So he devised an ingenious plan to ghost write screenplays (along with other blacklisted writers) for the King brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root) who are outside the Hollywood establishment… way outside. These writers are making their livings by writing movies about aliens, giant bugs, talking gorillas, etc. Not academy award material. But, Trumbo writes a screenplay, The Brave One, under a pseudonym and it wins a screenwriting Oscar. That gets him noticed by Kirk Douglas who enlists him to write Spartacus and by Otto Preminger to write Exodus. Once that happens, the blacklist is broken. In case you are now shaking your fists at me for “spoiling” what happens, sorry. This is history. It is easily researched, so is exempt from the spoiler rule. Those are the facts of the movie, what makes this entertaining and dramatic is Trumbo’s struggle with his values versus his need to earn money for his family. Trumbo apparently had a knack for speaking like everything he said would be inscribed in marble, a fact pointed out by fellow Communist and blacklisted writer Arlen Hird. Cranston portrays Trumbo as brilliant, yet flawed. His personality comes off as committed, maybe even obsessed with doing right. That’s important because all this highfalutin dialogue could come off as stilted or snobby. Instead, Cranston uses the dialogue to bring gravitas. The screenplay by John McNamara is compelling, but sometimes feels a little preachy. Jay Roach’s direction is good enough. He captures the look and feel of the times without being stilted. The only real complaint I have with the direction and cinematography (by Jim Denault) is during the scenes in Congress. The interrogator is looking one way, the witness is looking in what seems a different direction. That’s known as crossing the line and for me it was a bit distracting. The film is loaded with fabulous acting. Cranston proves once again how wonderful he is, bring heart and decency to a character that could have been stuffy and cartoonish. He also give an honest portrayal of how Trumbo’s blind obsession with the fight almost ruined his family. Helen Mirren is loathsome as Hedda Hopper, the media shill for those who sought out Communists in Hollywood. Michael Stuhlbarg (who is great in everything he does), captures the plight of poor Edward G. Robinson, a man caught between loyalty, ego and fame. And Louis CK as Arlen Hird captures his passionate commitment to the cause of fighting the blacklist. If you want to learn more about the Hollywood Blacklist and the heroics of Trumbo, Douglas, Preminger and dozens of others this is the movie you want to see. TRUMBO is a solid, entertaining film with one shining performance by a great actor.. Bryan Cranston.