“Trumbo” Movie Review


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     Early in director Jay Roach’s “Trumbo”, a character notes in a speech to the media “Movies are the most powerful influence ever created.”, a statement that I certainly agree with since for generations filmmakers have used the medium to tell countless stories with varying degrees of importance, some of which have been shown to have an enormous impact on people’s lives.  In the years that followed World War II, a war in which the United States and Soviet Union worked together to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan, a paranoia began to take hold on our society where it was felt the Communist and socialistic ways of the Russians were too far a departure from the Democratic and capitalist establishment in our country.  So much so that the government began investigating citizens who chose to believe those socialistic principles, as we seemed to feel our foundation of hard work and the American dream were being threatened by the influence of another super power who did things differently.

     Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was a highly sought after Hollywood screenwriter who had already achieved many accolades by the time we meet him in the late 1940s.  He was part of a growing group of filmmakers who identified as being members of the Communist party, which he explains in an ever so gentle way to his daughter in one of the film’s early scenes.  When she asks her dad if she is a Communist, he simply asks her what she would do if she saw another child in her class without a lunch to eat?  Would you tell the kid to work harder and get a job?  Or would you share?  That’s an interesting concept because we all know what the answer would be from most of us, even though the same point applies to those we see standing on the street corner holding a “will work for food” sign.  How many of us regularly stop and give that person money?  I imagine Trumbo himself would be the kind of person who would, but the film doesn’t focus on his efforts in philanthropy.  Making his feature screenwriting debut, John McNamara focuses on the legal aspects of Trumbo’s battle with the U.S. government, as well as his coverage and portrayal by the media, which lands him in front of the House Un-American Committee.

     The result of the investigation sends Trumbo and several of his Hollywood acquaintances who share the same beliefs to prison for contempt of Congress as their testimony was deemed uncooperative.  This leaves his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), and his three kids alone for several years with little money and several unanswered questions about how they suddenly found themselves in the middle of a firestorm.  Making matter worse, Hollywood studio chiefs then announce a blacklist known as the Hollywood Ten, a list that included Trumbo and promised severe repercussions to anyone who hired these men for any purpose in the making of a film.  The thinking behind it being that these men wield a powerful influence with their screenwriting and the industry became afraid they would inject Communist sentiment into the films they were a part of.  Of course once Trumbo is released from prison a couple years later, he becomes hell bent on getting around the blacklist and working to support his family, as well as his ideals.  At first, the odds he faced seemed insurmountable.

     A Hollywood organization spearheaded by Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and fronted by John Wayne (David James Elliott) continued to put immense pressure on anyone who hired those on the blacklist.  Trumbo gets around this by either making deals with established writers who remain in good standing, and also are trusted friends, to take the credit for his work and splitting the writer’s fees or simply working under a pseudonym.  For a while, the plan works, as Trumbo pens the scripts for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One” which both go on to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  Of course with Hopper being portrayed as a ruthless blood hound, Hollywood soon begins asking questions when members of the Writer’s Guild have to accept these awards on stage because the alleged writer is no where to be found.  This charade makes  up the majority of the film’s plot and does so in great detail, all the way down to the family’s role in answering multiple phone lines in the home and delivering scripts to various producers who never actually meet the writer in person.  All of this becomes much more satisfying when a young Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) walks through Trumbo’s door with an offer to write the script for “Spartacus”.

     Cranston’s performance as Trumbo was just honored with a nomination for Best Actor by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and I would expect more recognition is coming.  And while it is likely the best film performance of his career, I still found it incredibly difficult to see him stepping out of his famed Walter White character on “Breaking Bad”.  Perhaps it’s his natural mannerisms which are employed regardless of the character he is playing, but it still makes it tough to differentiate and not be reminded of his signature role.  That being said, Cranston and the entire cast are consistently engaging.  I really like Michael Stuhlbarg’s work playing actor Edward G. Robinson as he seems to be carving out a niche for himself as this generation’s Robert Duvall, offering a calming presence in a significant supporting role just as he did in both the recent “Steve Jobs” and “Pawn Sacrifice”.

     Roach, who previously excelled in comedic offerings like “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents”, shows a capable hand in ensuring “Trumbo” maintains the proper tone and highlights the essential parts of his life.  It’s a juggling act really, what with a complicated family life, a prison sentence, a never ending fight with Hollywood, and finding a means to survive all the while trying to stand up for what he believes in.  And while some of the characters might not be fully developed, John Goodman’s Frank King is a prime example, the focus on Trumbo’s journey over a period of twenty years makes for a worth while story and an interesting lesson in Hollywood history and politics.  GRADE: B+