Review: Trumbo

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

Trumbo is a fact-based story about Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter who was blacklisted during the Communist scare of the 1940s and 50s. Bryan Cranston is brilliant as the chain-smoking, hard-drinking writer who lead other Hollywood writers in a quiet but effective revolt against blacklisting.

Trumbo served time in prison for his liberal beliefs, as did many others during the hysterical fear-based Communist scourge of the 1950s. The 1st Amendment was under attack by many who sought to control the remarks and opinions of others – and throw them in prison if they disagreed.

Film scenes are interspersed with real footage from the era. You see faces you recognize like Senator Joseph McCarthy and then Senator Richard Nixon and Hollywood stars such as Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. In the final moments of the film, you see images of Dalton Trumbo himself giving a speech, with snapshots of his family members next to the actors who played them.

The family included Diane Lane as Cleo Trumbo. She was around the edges of the story, but a powerful influence on Trumbo and on the course of his efforts to be recognized as a writer in Hollywood under his own name. Her most effective scene was when it was all over and the blacklisting was finally stopped. Trumbo received an award under his own name. When they arrived home after the ceremony, Cleo collapsed in tears from the relief that their long struggle was finally over. She’d held the family together for so long on her own while her husband was in prison, and later while he wrote for 18 to 20 hours a day.

Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane in Trumbo
Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane in Trumbo

The most noteworthy of the children’s roles was Nikola, played from young teen to adult by Elle Fanning. Nikola was outspoken and opinionated, just like her dad. It took about 9 actors to play the 3 Trumbo children at various ages.

Surrounding Trumbo were many friends, writers and actors. Louis C.K. played Arlen Hird, Alan Tudyk played Ian McClellan Hunter. Michael Stuhlbarg played Edward G. Robinson. David James Elliott played the anti-Communist John Wayne.

Dean O’Gorman did Kirk Douglas. One of the most interesting shots in the film to me as a movie buff was a scene from Spartacus, which Trumbo wrote. We saw the real Kirk Douglas in the beginning of the scene, and Dean O’Gorman in a close up later in the scene.

John Goodman was delightful as the B movie producer Frank King. Christian Berkel was impeccable as Otto Preminger.

Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston in Trumbo
Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

The best supporting part, however, went to Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, the Hollywood gossip columnist and a leader of the organization conducting the fear campaign and witch hunt to imprison Americans who embraced Communist ideals.

Like so many crusaders who have come before and after her, Hopper was absolutely convincing. She spoke against Communists with the same fervor that others have railed against homosexuals, or African Americans, or AIDS patients, or Muslims, or whatever the current boogeyman infecting the country with fear might be. Mirren deserves every one of the award nominations she is getting for this part.

Trumbo is a reminder that we are a country and a people still subject to fear-based overreaction and wrong-headed decisions based on that fear. I began 2015 watching Selma and ended it watching Trumbo. Both films are powerful reminders that we need to be vigilant in our defense of freedom and civil rights if America is going to survive as a beacon of democracy and opportunity for all.

Jay Roach directed Trumbo. The film is important and topical, but it’s also highly entertaining and enjoyable.  There’s nothing preachy or heavy handed about it. It’s funny, it’s engaging. I absolutely recommend it.

A Trumbo Featurette

This featurette show some behind the scenes and comments from the actors.

The trailer for Trumbo is in an earlier post.

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