Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director: Jay Roach
Writer: John McNamara
In the long, colourful history of Hollywood, the story of the Hollywood Ten marks one of its unhappier periods. In the early days of the Cold War when insecurity and paranoia grew from the fear of the Soviet Union, leading figures in American law and politics (most infamously Senator McCarthy) sought to prevent their communist ideology from taking hold of the American public. The result was a witch-hunt that propagated fear, corrupted institutions and ruined lives. It is remembered today as a dark episode of American history that demonstrates what happens when irrational panic and warped patriotism are allowed to permit the abuse of democracy. Dalton Trumbo, as one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted for his political activism, is hailed as a man who stood up to the oppression of the Blacklist and is often credited with defeating it. Trumbo is a film that sets out to celebrate the man’s legacy by giving his story the Hollywood treatment. (On a sidenote I first learned about this subject because of Herbert J. Biberman who was also one of the Hollywood Ten. He went on to direct a movie called Salt of the Earth, a film about socialism and feminism that is well worth a watch).
Upon the conclusion of the Second World War Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is one of the most celebrated screenwriters in Hollywood. However his radical politics gets him into trouble when the McCarthyist hunt for Communist sympathisers turns its head towards the entertainment industry. Persecuted by such figures as the influential columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), Trumbo and his friends, including fellow writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), are made to testify before the House Committee of Un-American Activities where they are subsequently found in contempt and blacklisted. Exiled and disgraced, Trumbo seeks to find a different means by which he can provide for his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and his children, including his socially active daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning). His solution is to anonymously write B-movie screenplays for the low-budget King Brothers Productions led by Frank King (John Goodman). It is also during this period that Trumbo secretly writes the screenplays for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, both of which would go on to win Academy Awards, as well as Spartacus, the movie that effectively ended the Hollywood Blacklist.
The big problem with this movie, as is often the case with other ‘based-on-a-true-story’ movies of this type is that it takes a simplistic approach towards its subject matter. In order to convey what an injustice the Hollywood Blacklist was, the film determinedly portrays its perpetrators as decadent villains and its victims as venerable heroes. While the Blacklist was indeed an injustice, the approach this film takes felt too one-dimensional. There is a scene that stuck out where J. Parnell Thomas, the judge who had Trumbo convicted, is himself found guilty of tax evasion and ends up serving time in the same prison. Upon meeting each other during their incarceration Thomas remarks on the irony of them both ending up in the same place to which Trumbo defiantly counters, “Except that you committed a crime and I didn’t”. The movie was so superficial yet morally superior in its portrayal of these events that this scene felt cornier to me than heroic. I felt like the complexity and significance of this truly fascinating figure and his story was somewhat lost by the film’s desire to overcompensate for the wrongs that were committed. In a way Trumbo suffers from a similar problem that I found with fellow Oscar nominee The Danish Girl, which is that its depiction of the story is too safe and lacks power and weight because of it.
As much as I like Cranston as an actor, I must say that I thought his depiction of Dalton Trumbo came across as something of a caricature. This doesn’t exactly mean that I think he gave a bad performance, I just thought it was a little thin. Trumbo never really felt like a character to me, but instead felt more like Cranston trying to play a character. It is for sure an entertainingly eccentric performance but it lacks the nuance that I know Cranston can bring. In truth most of the characters in this film are thinly written, meaning that many of the performances provided only work on a surfaced level. Mirren for instance delivers a delectable performance as the malicious columnist who has set out to ruin Trumbo and his allies, but it is a performance completely lacking in substance. Consequently she comes across as more of a cartoon villain than she does a portrayal of a real-life figure. In fact most of the famous names portrayed in this movie, including Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, feel more like soulless simulations than they do characters.
The film is simplistic, distortive and hollow but it still has its merits. It is by all means an entertaining and even a compelling film, even if it does lack the weight that a more challenging and introspective approach to the story would have given it. Cranston certainly provides a solid leading performance as the idealistic Trumbo and is backed by a formidable supporting cast who all deliver stronger performances than the material warranted. The film is sketchy and historically selective in its approach to the story but still depicts it in an appealing way to those looking for a simple and straightforward movie about a real-life hero overcoming and defeating a movement of tyranny and persecution. The story of the Hollywood Blacklist is an important one that deserves a smarter and worthier film but Trumbo is agreeable enough, if otherwise undistinguished.