Review: Trumbo

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While watching Trumbo, a fine film directed by Jay Roach, I had a sinking feeling. This film is about the Hollywood Ten and the resulting blacklist during the communist witch hunt of the 1950s, which would now seem to be ancient history, but since there is nothing new under the sun, the fear and demagoguery of those days are still with us.

Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters. He signed a contract with MGM that made him the highest paid writer in the industry. He was an iconoclast and an eccentric, who smoked cigarettes with a filter and wrote in the bathtub. He was also an unapologetic communist. When the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed him he didn’t play ball and was imprisoned for contempt of congress. When he got out he was unhireable.

That’s the story behind this film. It’s a subject that’s been covered before, but it’s a credit to the passage of time that sophisticated viewers can now handle the fact that being a communist is not against the law. A few decades ago there was a film called Guilt By Suspicion with Robert De Niro that made a big deal about him being falsely accused as a communist. Trumbo was the real thing.

He was also a great wit and intellect. Bryan Cranston ably plays him as someone who speaks as, a friend notes, as if his words were being chiseled into stone. But Cranston shows the vulnerability of the man. A scene in which he is literally stripped naked, being processed into prison, his trademark mustache gone, really hits hard, even though he says absolutely nothing.

While Trumbo is blacklisted he starts writing scripts pseudonymously for a pair of low-budget schlock producers (John Goodman and Stephen Root). Goodman doesn’t care about being picketed–“The people who see my movies can’t read.” Trumbo, along with his wife and kids, start a little business where they use other blacklisted writers, churning scripts out like widgets. He manages to win two Oscars for films that don’t have his name on them (one of them was for Roman Holiday). Then Kirk Douglas comes calling, asking Trumbo to write Spartacus. This gets Otto Preminger interested in him writing Exodus, and finally both of these men put Trumbo’s name on them, effectively ending the blacklist.

The film manages to capture the paranoia and scariness of the period. Anyone associated with the left is suspected. A number of other writers and directors were targeted, as well as actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). The film, who is very kind to Douglas, is terrible to Robinson, who is shown naming names, but he did no such thing. Preminger, who no one liked, is seen as a prick who happens to do a good thing.

Trumbo’s villains include Hedda Hopper, who was a horrible person, here played by Helen Mirren. In a nice, vicious scene, she turns on Louis B. Mayer, who did not initially fire Trumbo from MGM. She shames him into it, calling him a kike in the process. And, in a bit of audaciousness, John Wayne is cast in a negative light as the head of the Hollywood Alliance. In a scene that would have outraged Wayne, Trumbo calls him out for not having served in World War II.

The film is well cast, with Louis C.K. playing a composite character of many other writers (who were to the left of even Trumbo), Diane Lane as his wife, and Elle Fanning as his idealistic daughter. The film isn’t perfect–it’s a bit too self-congratulatory (we are told that Trumbo finally got his Oscar, but it took an awful long time) and I would have liked a bit of background on the man. How did a man from Colorado (which I learned on Wikipedia) end up speaking like a Harvard professor? Still, Trumbo is a solid entertainment, especially for Hollywood history buffs and leftists everywhere. As a bonus, Anne Coulter probably would hate it.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

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