Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis CK
Director: Jay Roach
Film review by Colin Lomas
America is in the throes of mass paranoia, hysterical rhetoric from politicians presaging the clandestine terrorists next door, the evil doers secretly undermining a fine country through their schools, their hospitals, their media; how every man, woman and child must stand against this insurgence for the good of all. Won’t someone think of the children!? Sound familiar? Well for once, this isn’t a reference to (God help us all) President in waiting Trump and his fear-mongering contingent of minions, but the post-war setting of biopic Trumbo, switching modern day Islam for cold war Communism.
After opening credits disturbingly similar to that of Murder She Wrote, Trumbo begins in late 1940s America, showing news footage of Stalin flexing his military muscle to set the scene for the freshly discovered anxiety for the red under the bed. In reaction, the House Un-American Activities Committee (yes, that was a ‘thing’) has been set up to investigate and prosecute anyone suspected of subversive activities, a vague notion many considered to be a breach of the First Amendment. Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) is about to become the highest paid writer in Hollywood but, along with a number of other highly successful Hollywood screenwriters, comes under scrutiny from the Un-American committee due to their open support of the Communist party. Fuelled by gossip columnist and staunch anti-Communist Hollywood powerhouse Hedda Hopper (Mirren), ten of these Hollywood writers, Trumbo included, are sent to prison for refusing to testify in front of the committee and are subsequently blacklisted from the industry. What follows is the story of how Trumbo spearheaded an underground guerrilla writing team, using pseudonyms and real non-blacklisted writers to get their scripts realised as movies.
It’s appropriate that the film never tries to portray Trumbo through rose-tinted glasses. As well as revealing the genius behind the typewriter, it exposes the obsessively selfish worker, the bully who forces his children to miss out on school work and personal activities to deliver manuscripts, the father who doesn’t have a spare minute to leave his office to watch his daughter blow out the candles on her birthday cake. It frequently shows that Trumbo, whether his fight is righteous or grounded in self-interest, forcibly compels everyone in his wake to follow. Cranston’s performance perfectly captures this complex and at times hypocritical man, his unrelenting single mindedness. When quizzed on how he can encourage socialist beliefs while surrounding himself with the material treasures of a multi-millionaire he responds: “The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus. But the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan”.
Mirren rarely renders a character who is to be trifled with, and her portrayal of Hopper is no exception. Throughout the film, Hopper stops at nothing to make sure her rules are obeyed; from the fake smiles flashed at the cameras and her devious manipulation of everyone around her through to her brutal threats to the head of MGM should he not follow her request to sack Trumbo and co from the staff.
The script is sharp and it’s difficult not to delight in the vicious pleasure Trumbo takes from the rebuffs he doles out to anyone in his path, at one stage asking John Wayne where he was stationed during the glorious war effort that he constantly revels in; ‘On a movie set, firing blanks wearing make-up?’.
It is a beautiful film to look at, from the idyllic American family abodes to the wonderful forms of mid-century cars, it’s the American dream carefully draped over the ingrained suspicion of the time. It’s also worth staying around a few minutes into the closing credits to see an interview with Trumbo himself as he talks through the struggles of anonymously winning an Oscar.
Trumbo is a really enjoyable film and, although a little clumsy and predictable at times, works well as an interesting portrayal of a fascinating man in a dark fear-filled period of American history.
Click here for more film reviews.