Film Review: Trumbo (2016)


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Release date: February 5, 2016 (United Kingdom)
Director: Jay Roach
Running time: 2h 4m
Screenplay: John McNamara
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning, John Goodman

Bryan Cranston is great in the role of Dalton Trumbo a screenwriter who was blacklisted by Hollywood for his Communist Party membership in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Trumbo was one of the “Hollywood 10” held in contempt of court for refusing to co-operate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities whose politically inspired witch hunts were supported enthusiastically by the likes of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan as well as a significant portion of the American media and public at the time.


The Hollywood Ten.  Front row (from Left): Herbert Biberman, attorneys Martin Popper and Robert W.Kenny, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole. Middle row: Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz. Back row: Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

They appealed the conviction for contempt to the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds, but it allowed their convictions to stand. In 1950, Trumbo served eleven months in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. In the 1976 documentary Hollywood On Trial Trumbo said of his trial:

“As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since.”

The film is a historical narrative which does not shy away from showing the pressure to betray friends and the price paid not just by the individuals persecuted but also their families. It shows people buckling under that pressure and giving up names to the Committee in return for being left alone. As the pressure is put on old friendships and relationships are tested. Trumbo is a difficult man to keep down, however. He has a droll wit and cunning which kept him going in the face of adversity – as well as plenty of cigarettes and booze! He has something more though, talent and a work ethic that would put most to shame. Trumbo was prolific.

Instead of giving up in the face of persecution Trumbo used pseudonyms and ‘fronts’ to get his work on screen and get paid. After leaving jail he wrote thirty scripts under pseudonyms, for B-movie studios such as King Brothers Productions. The Brave One (1956), written for King Brothers, even received an Academy Award for Best Story credited to “Robert Rich”. He used MacKinlay Kantor, author of the short story it was based on, as a front for Gun Crazy (1950) and Ian McLellan Hunter for Roman Holiday (1953), which also won an Academy Award for Best Story (presented originally to Hunter).

The public crediting of Trumbo as the writer of both Exodus and Spartacus in 1960 marked the end of the Hollywood Blacklist. The support of director Otto Perminger and Kirk Douglas was key. Trumbo was reinstated in the Writers Guild of America and was credited on all subsequent scripts. In 1975, the Academy officially recognized Trumbo as the winner of the Oscar for The Brave One, and presented him with a statuette. Trumbo died in 1976 but his widow was presented with an Oscar in 1993 for Roman Holiday. Eventually in 2011 he was given full credit for the script of Roman Holiday.

Aside from the great performance from Cranston it’s worth mentioning Helen Mirren playing the Commie hating columnist Hedda Hopper and John Goodman as the B-movie producer, Frank King, who works with Trumbo.

Trumbo should inspire as well as entertain you. Anyone who has faced political persecution will recognise that the worst aspect is emotional and psychological, the way relationships are warped, the betrayals and the strain placed on family, colleagues and friends. Yet this is a film which eventually has a happy ending. That’s a testament to the talent, hard work and sheer refusal of a principled man to be beaten down. Whatever one thinks of his politics we all have something to learn from Trumbo.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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