The writer and the Red Scare: ‘Trumbo’ looks at the man who defied Congress and won two Academy Awards in the process

December 28, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 28, 2015

Director Jay Roach’s lively new biopic, Trumbo, tells the story of a leftist Hollywood screenwriter and his tangle with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Veteran actor Bryan Cranston (the star of the acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad, who had minor roles in Argo and Godzilla) headlines the movie as title character Dalton Trumbo. A labor activist and American Communist Party member, he also happened to be one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters.

Trumbo’s story tracks what I know about the actual historic events, which a few web searches seem to confirm. America’s pivot from World War II to the Cold War meant that the Soviet Union, our allies in the crusade against Nazi Germany, quickly became our enemies in the sublimated struggle for world domination. Although fairly sudden, this change in relations between American and other Western Allies and the Soviet Union was very real — recall if you will Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech from March 1946. And it prompted some Americans to focus their animus on the sociopolitical philosophy of Communism, a dynamic that went on to cause a tremendous amount of needless harm.

Trumbo and nine other leftist moviemakers became known as “the Hollywood Ten” in 1947 when they were subpoenaed to testify before the Un-American Activities Committee. The group declined to answer Congress’s questions, objecting to the inquisition as unconstitutional, and its members were ultimately sentenced to prison for contempt of Congress.

But in some ways, worse things were to come for the group. At the instigation of conservative Hollywood denizens such as columnist and former actress Hedda Hopper (a scenery-chewing Helen Mirren) and actor John Wayne (David James Elliott), the studios created the blacklist — a roster of known or suspected Communist sympathizers who were barred from working in the industry. When Trumbo emerged from prison, he and his comrades had no means of sustaining themselves, or at least none that matched their talents and experience.

But Trumbo, evidently never a man to back down from a challenge, rallied his colleagues to turn in scripts under pen names. The group typically wrote for atrocious films — think Plan 9 from Outer Space but without the pretense of artistic integrity — producing scripts on tight deadlines for minimal pay.

Even so, Trumbo managed to produce some amazing work. His screenplay for Roman Holiday resulted in a 1953 Academy Award for writer Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), a friend of Trumbo’s who agreed to accept credit for the script in order to help his friend earn a covert paycheck. Three years later, another original Trumbo work, The Brave One, earned an Academy Award for Robert Rich, a nephew of the film’s producers whose name was used in order to conceal Trumbo’s involvement.

Eventually, Trumbo’s persistence and at least a slight lessening of American paranoia over the Communist menace helped bring about the end the blacklist. Trumbo credits actor Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) for hiring Trumbo to write, and then publicly putting his name on, screenplays based on the novels Spartacus and Exodus, respectively.

Trumbo was written by John McNamara, whose other work has all been for television; the film is based on the Bruce Cook biography Dalton Trumbo. This synopsis may sound rather dry, but McNamara and Roach (who co-wrote the subpar TV movie Lifepod) handle the material deftly. Roach’s experience as director of the Austin Powers movies and other comedies serves him well in this regard. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Cranston has charisma to spare and that the man he plays evidently had a penchant for delivering terrific sermons. (These are kept relatively short in the film.)

The movie strains at times to wring drama out of Trumbo’s circumstances. But it ultimately succeeds, showing how the pressure of delivering and doctoring scripts seven days a week for 18 hours a day for weeks on end frayed Trumbo’s sanity and his familial relations. Diane Lane turns in an excellent performance as Cleo, Trumbo’s supportive wife; she gets strong support from a variety of performers playing the couple’s three children at different ages, notably Elle Fanning as oldest daughter Nikola.

Comedian Louis C.K. has a wonderful turn as Arlen Hird, an ailing radical screenwriter whom Trumbo persuades to stand up for principal. So does Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Eddie G. Robinson, a friend and frequent collaborator of Trumbo’s who is pressured to name Communist sympathizers in testimony before the Un-American Activities Committee.

The suffering of these supporting characters reveals the true human cost of Communist scaremongering in a deeper and more affecting way than anything Trumbo does or says. One issue is that Cranston’s Trumbo is made out by the movie to be so clearly in the right that the viewer never doubts he will be vindicated. The writer is also so optimistic and cheerful that he hardly seems affected by any of the indignities inflicted upon him.

Trumbo’s story is interesting, but I couldn’t help but think that there’s a better movie to be made about men and women who weren’t as committed to principle as he was. When titles at the end of the film inform the audience that thousands of people lost their jobs and their families after being named Communist sympathizers, and that some even killed themselves after being ostracized for their involvement with Communism, I wanted to know more about their stories, which Trumbo mainly presents as footnotes.

The people who caved in to pressure (as one character does in Trumbo); the people who weren’t as sure as he was that the Communist witch hunt represented a dramatic betrayal of American principles; the people who weren’t as talented and driven as Trumbo; the people who lost homes and families — they strike me as having more dramatic potential than Trumbo, who in many ways was an exception to the rule.

In the end, I liked Trumbo, and I think anyone interested in this period of American history, or American film, might also enjoy it. (Although I suppose those of a conservative bent might decry the movie’s approach to Communism and poverty as being completely wrong-headed.) But I suspect a better movie about this subject may yet be made.

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