Dalton Trumbo was an Academy Award nominated screenwriter when his political beliefs saw him drummed out of Hollywood’s inner circles, reducing him to penning scripts for b-movies like “The Alien and the Farm Girl.”
For a brief time he was the highest paid writer in Hollywood, which also meant he was the highest paid writer in the world. He was a family man, a wealthy man and a proud American communist whose career was sidelined by Hollywood conservatives like Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), John Wayne (David James Elliott) and The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. “I love our country,” he says, “and our government is good but couldn’t anything good to be better?”
The film “Trumbo,” starring Bryan Cranston begins as the writer is enjoying the success of his scripts for “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” and “Kitty Foyle.” He’s a committed communist, who, along with a group of Tinsel Town activists like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) work tirelessly to create unions within the studio system to ensure that everyone, from the grips to the set decorators on up, earn a living wage.
Their socialist leanings didn’t go unnoticed by Congress and by a cadre of concerned actors who think the group’s socialist ways are un-American. When Hopper, using extortion and bigotry, coerces studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) to fire Trumbo, an industry wide blacklist bans the writer and nine others from working in Hollywood.
With all legal avenues exhausted Trumbo sees his professional and personal worlds crumble as former friends like Robinson stand before Congress and call him “a sinister force.” Punished for his political beliefs, Trumbo makes ends meets by writing screenplays under aliases and creating a script factory staffed by blacklisted writers. After a decade of working in the shadows and winning two Oscars under fake names, he finds two powerful people willing to break the blacklist and put his name where it belongs, on screen.
“Trumbo” is not the story of Senator Joe McCarthy communist witch hunt or a rehash of the Congressional hearings. Instead it is the tale of the times and the personal story of one man who would not allow his civil liberties to be stripped away.
Perhaps its appropriate that a film about the Golden Age of Hollywood—even one that tarnishes the glamour of the period—should feel a little old fashioned. It’s a redemption story, simply told and populated by archetypal characters—Elliott’s John Wayne isn’t a person, for instance, he’s a blustery caricature of The Duke taken directly from the actor’s movie roles—who revolve around Cranston’s flamboyant performance.
The “Breaking Bad” star plays Trumbo as a raging ball of ideology, quick with a quip—in a showdown with John Wayne Trumbo sneers the patriotic actor spent World War II “on a film set shooting blanks and wearing make up.”—and willing to pay the price for his actions. It’s a large cigarette chomping performance of a larger-than-life person.
It takes some time before the rest of the movie catches up with Cranston’s theatrics, but by the time John Goodman, in a hilarious portrayal of a b-movie producer, says, “We bought a gorilla suit and we gotta use it,” the film finds its level.
“Trumbo” is a film with a social conscience with important messages about civil liberties and the importance of freedom of belief, wrapped up in an old-fashioned biopic.