In 1947, successful Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is blacklisted by the Hollywood studios under the direction of the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities. Holding to a belief in free speech and refusing to name "suspicious" friends, Trumbo is vilified in the communist witch-hunt at the height of the Cold War. He is exiled professionally, sentenced to a year in prison for Contempt of Congress, and drawn into a battle with the Red-hating gossip columnist Hedda Hooper (Helen Mirren). With his irrepressible creative talent, Trumbo finds his way back into Hollywood, writing several scripts under pseudonyms during his exile, including Roman Holiday, and winning two Academy Awards under alias. (Based on a true story)
Review by Louise Keller:
A fascinating inside look at Hollywood and the blacklist era when political ideologies determined who worked or not, Trumbo is a triumphant mix of portrait and insightful glimpse into the workings of the film industry. Screenwriter John McNamara has penned a superb script that opens the window into an era in the 1940s that many know little about, involving well known names such as actors John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, director Otto Preminger and major Hollywood studio heads.
Bryan Cranston is formidable as scriptwriter supreme Dalton Trumbo, forced to write under pseudonyms when he refuses to deny his communist beliefs. Especially interesting are the circumstances of his winning Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, both scripts for which are written under a pseudonym. While the topic canvasses one of Hollywood's darkest chapters, director Jay Roach keeps the film light as it weaves the political climate with the human story - that of Trumbo, his colleagues and family.
When the film begins, Trumbo is one of the most successful and highest paid screenwriters. From the outset, the close relationship between Trumbo and his oldest daughter Nicola (Madison Wolfe, Elle Fanning) is established; watch for the scene when Nicola asks her father whether or not she is a communist. After Trumbo's stint in jail when he refuses to testify in the US probe into communist activity, the family unit becomes of critical importance. We soon get a feel for how Trumbo works, closeting himself into the bathroom where he writes many of the pseudonym scripts from the bathtub, scotch and amphetamines close at hand. Meanwhile his wife (Diane Lane, excellent) and children support him by answering phones and delivering scripts. I love the line about Hollywood needing scripts 'like an army needs toilet paper'.
Real footage from the era featuring well-known actors is cleverly integrated and the scenes involving stars such as John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) are especially effective. Helen Mirren is terrific as the vicious Hedda Hopper, pencilled eyebrows and flouncy hats not withstanding. Some of these scenes are highly amusing and there is a voyeuristic element as familiar faces and names form a crucial part of the story.
With elements that include politics, star power, glamour and money, there is plenty of bite in Trumbo. It's a crackling good tale, although the key topic of communism and free speech may be darker than the film suggests. The film plays as entertainment with comic elements, rather than the film it might have been. This is not meant as a criticism; I enjoyed the film immensely, but it never achieves the heights that it might have done, had the focus and impact on the darker elements been explored further.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's full of both gravitas and titillation, as perhaps any true story is; there is the destruction of lives and careers on one hand, and the spectacle of the players on the other - with Hollywood stars of the 40s and 50s as more or less support players. There is Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) - not to mention real stars heard and seen in archival footage, including Gregory Peck. Seeing these stars out of their natural habitat is one of the quirky pleasures of the film, even though the replicas are just that ... replicas.
Director Jay Roach tells the story of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) as a story of injustice and of un-American behaviour by many in Washington, thereby adding irony to what is already a heavily ironic story. And as I am reading the Bruce Cook book on which it is based, I can say the movie grabs me more. Much of the credit for that of course goes to the cast, not least Cranston, as well as Helen Mirren as influential columnist Hedda Hopper, Richard Portnow as Louis B. Mayer, Roger Bart as Buddy Ross and Diane Lane as Cleo Trumbo, the wife who holds the family together.
What is for me the greatest irony, though, is the kind of communism Trumbo describes to his clever young daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning) with this oversimplified scenario as a test to see if she is a 'communist': if she had a sandwich at school and a friend didn't, what would she do? Share it, is the answer - which maker her 'a little commie'. Having been brought up under a communist regime, I could have told Trumbo that is not communism. The McCarthy witch hunt against communist sympathisers was predicated on ignorance and fear - never a valuable cocktail. It is the impulse of racists and bigots. Real communism as practiced in the Soviet world - not the vanilla version depicted here - was never worth defending, certainly not by genuinely decent people like Trumbo.
Although the film positions Trumbo as a hero, it is not an unblemished image, and as he makes clear in his speech to the American Writers Guild when honoured at the end of his career, no one is blameless in this infamous episode of American history: there are no heroes or villains. In a town that thrives on telling stories about heroes and villains, this is indeed another huge irony.
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CAST: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, John Goodman, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Maldonado, David James Elliott, Richard Portnow
PRODUCER: Kevin Kelly Brown, Monica Levinson, Michael London, Nimitt Mankad, John McNamara, Shivani Rawat, Janice Williams
DIRECTOR: Jay Roach
SCRIPT: John McNamara (book by Bruce Cook)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jim Denault
EDITOR: Alan Baumgarten
MUSIC: Theodore Shapiro
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Mark Ricker
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: eOne
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 18, 2016