“There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts” – Dalton Trumbo in a 1970 speech.
In October of 1947, a group of men involved in the film industry were subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and were asked a question that was essentially, “are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party”? They refused to answer and the Hollywood Ten was born. Trumbo is the story of one of those men, Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) and what happened to him after that fateful moment.
Prior to his testifying, albeit briefly, before Congress, Dalton Trumbo had signed a contract with MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Portnow) that made him the highest paid writer in Hollywood. He and the others were all fired after being charged with contempt of Congress. They had hoped to avoid prison and put an end to HUAC’s witch hunt by having the U. S. Supreme Court overturn their convictions on constitutional grounds. That didn’t happen, in spite of some of Hollywood’s most notables speaking out in support of the group’s First Amendment rights. Dalton Trumbo wound up in prison in Kentucky and served 11 months there. While there he met a man named Virgil Brooks (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who helps him out during his incarceration.
Blacklisted in Hollywood, Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood Ten cannot find work. He’s happy to be reunited with his wife Cleo (Lane) and their three kids but he wants and needs to write. He has no other skills with which to earn a living. He writes a script and gives it to Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) who sells it to Paramount. That script happened to be Roman Holiday, which won Hunter an Academy Award for Best Story (today it’s known as Best Original Screenplay).
Trumbo continues to find a way to make money by writing when he approaches Frank King (Goodman), producer of “shlock” movies, who agrees to buy scripts from Trumbo. They avoid the blacklist issue by not using Trumbo’s name. This leads to the second Academy Award for one of Trumbo’s screenplays, this time one he wrote under the pseudonym “Robert Rich.” That film was The Brave One. Hedda Hopper (Mirren), the famed Hollywood gossip columnist and fervent supporter of HUAC and the blacklisting of suspected Communists appears throughout the film, attempting to nail Trumbo and his fellow writers for works done under fake names.
It was Dalton Trumbo who put a ‘killshot’ into the blacklist when director Otto Preminger (Berkel) announced that he would give credit to Trumbo for writing Exodus, followed by Kirk Douglas insisting that Trumbo get full credit for his work on Spartacus.
It isn’t just the attention to proper details of the period that make Trumbo such a great film, although they certainly help. The work of Bryan Cranston as the famed writer, his ability to speak with the literary aplomb of the man, and his capturing of the extreme range of emotions that he must have felt during these years is simply astonishing. The rest of the cast is outstanding, particularly Diane Lane as his long-suffering wife, Helen Mirren as the staunch conservative who hates Communism and Communist and Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s daughter Nicola.
Director Jay Roach’s sense of comic timing proves potent as he has paced this movie like a perfectly tuned Swiss watch. The visuals are lush and pleasing and this winds up being the kind of movie you want to see again. And again.
It is worth pausing to pay tribute to the men who were made to suffer due to “Red paranoia” when they became the Hollywood Ten:
Ring Lardner, Jr.
John Howard Lawson