Dalton Trumbo was a very successful Hollywood screenwriter in the late 1940’s when he was called to answer questions about his beliefs by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He refused to testify, so was sent to prison for 11 months for Contempt of Congress. He and many others were put on a Black List by the movie studios, which refused to hire them, denying them any means of support.
The film Trumbo dramatizes these events with major actors in the roles of the principal players. Bryan Cranston plays Trumbo in another one of his remarkable performances. He truly can melt himself into a character so well you forget him, the actor. Diane Lane plays his wife Cleo—capturing the near-saint that Cleo must have been, while easily asserting herself forcefully when she perceived a wrong. Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper, an apparently conniving, devious zealot with incredible power given her occupation, a gossip columnist. In her younger days, she was an actress and still seethes about being rejected as “too old”, but is still able to threaten studio executives with exposure of their weaknesses unless they go along with her political stance, i.e., supporting the HUAC.
Louis C.K. is turning out to be a gifted actor; he plays Arlen Hird, one of Trumbo’s reluctant screenwriter colleagues also called to testify. Trumbo pulls him along by convincing him that even if they’re convicted, the case will go to a liberal Supreme Court that will defend their right of free speech, and he pays for Hird’s attorney fees. (In a stroke of bad luck, one of the Supreme Court liberal judges dies unexpectedly, so they lose their appeal.)
Another star always up to his reputation is John Goodman, who plays Frank King, a Hollywood producer who just wants to churn out box office successes. He doesn’t give a flip about political issues, so has no problem paying Trumbo to rework the terrible scripts he is given. This is what saves Trumbo financially, and as amazing as he is in turning out scripts in record time, he has so much work he can’t do it all. He hires his fellow blacklisted writers to help him, and thereby they survive.
Trumbo is an extraordinary film in showing us an important “happening” in American history, in having well known actors playing major figures (which blows your mind a little bit), and more importantly, reminding us of how critical it is for Americans to have free speech to sustain our democracy.
Director Jay Roach is known primarily for comedies (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers), but I think he does a good job in presenting this bruising history of Hollywood and America. It is more liberal in its presentation, but an important speech by Dalton Trumbo gives the import of the movie’s message: 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 (Cieply, Michael (September 11, 2007). "A Voice From the Blacklist: Documentary Lets Dalton Trumbo Speak (Through Surrogates)". New York Times. Retrieved December 15, 2011.)
An instructive piece of American history dramatized.
Grade: B By Donna R. Copeland