The story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo may not be widely known but his treatment- and the treatment of the others known as the Hollywood Ten, all of whom were blacklisted by the industry for their association with Communism and some of whom were imprisoned for contempt by refusing to name names at the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)- remains one of the most shameful periods in Hollywood history. A new film, directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet The Parents), tells his story with Bryan Cranston starring as the titular screenwriter.
Trumbo was (or had been) an active member of the Communist Party of the USA but was one of those subpoena'd to appear before the HUAC. He was found guilty of contempt and was imprisoned for 11 months. After his imprisonment, he went on to continue screenwriting under a pseudonym for a studio that specialised in B-movies. He also wrote the story for Roman Holiday but gave it to fellow writer Ian McLellan Hunter who acted as a front. He also wrote another film that won an Oscar for its screenplay- The Brave One- which was also awarded pseudonymously. It was only in 1960 when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger publicly acknowledged his writing for Spartacus and Exodus respectively that his blacklisting ceased.
Cranston's performance is strong, bordering on mannered on occasions, but full of vigour. Luckily, Trumbo is not portrayed as a mere saint or martyr; he is given shade, mostly by being an objectionable, irascible pain in the arse to his family members who he has working for him as he tries to finish his B-movie scripts (often writing in the bath). A particularly strong moment is when Trumbo butts heads with John Wayne over his World War II record. Cranston's performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (the film's only nomination) and he also had a load of other Best Actor nominations. It's deserved; it's a powerful performance even if the writing tends to be a bit simplistic at times.
Helen Mirren gives a delightfully venomous edge to her portrayal of Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist who was one of the main opponents of Communists, using her position to name names, even going so far as to threaten one of the studio heads with exposure if he didn't fall in line. There are stong supporting turns for Louis C.K. as blacklisted writer Arlen Hird (a composite character of several other writers) and Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Edward G. Robinson who eventually did testify at the HUAC hearings (although denied ever naming names). Not all characters are as strongly fleshed out however: Diane Lane doesn't have much to do as Trumbo's wife Cleo, for instance.
The film has come in for some criticism about the representation of Trumbo- who apparently had outspoken support for brutal Soviet-style regimes- and also about the historical accuracy (or otherwise) of what's presented. Every storyteller has an agenda and will pick and choose what to leave in and what to leave out and how to use what they've left in. You have to accept what's being presented in front of you. Here, there are moments of didacticism. There are several clumsily-executed homilies about truth and justice which jar but that's squarely a problem with John McNamara's script.
This is a solid, if unremarkable, biopic but a story that definitely needs to be told.
Rating 3 out of 5