Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 2015. Bleecker Street Films, ShivHans Pictures, Groundswell Productions. Screenplay by John McNamara, based on the book Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Cook. Cinematography by Jim Denault. Produced by Kevin Kelly Brown, Monica Levinson, Michael London, Nimitt Mankad, John McNamara, Shivani Rawat, Janice Williams. Music by Theodore Shapiro. Production Design by Mark Ricker. Costume Design by Daniel Orlandi. Film Editing by Alan Baumgarten. Academy Awards 2015. Golden Globe Awards 2015. Toronto International Film Festival 2015.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played here by Bryan Cranston) easily became a prime target for the HUAC during the height of the Red Scare: gregarious, charismatic and a card-carrying Communist party member for years, Trumbo sees the congressional hearings as a blight on the First Amendment and, despite the suggestion of his peers, refuses to endure the injustice quietly. He and fellow screenwriters eventually become the famous Hollywood Ten, jailed for their refusal to name names to the committee and, in most cases, they never recovered their careers. Trumbo followed his jail sentence with years of constant scriptwriting, unable to work openly but arranging for himself and his friends to write endless amounts of scripts for lower level projects under pseudonyms for B-level producers like the King Brothers (one of them played with the kind of hilarious gusto we have come to expect from John Goodman). Studio heads have to navigate the political machinations of vicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played with unapologetic relish by Helen Mirren), and stars like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) feel pressure to cave in to the hearings to save their careers, but Trumbo stands strong even at the cost he sees it taking on his friends (Louis C.K. is weakly cast as a fellow writer) and increasingly tense family life. Also featuring Diane Lane as Trumbo’s devoted wife Cleo and Elle Fanning as daughter Niki, the film is a finely acted, strongly written summation of the highlights of Trumbo’s experience, which culminated in his breaking the blacklist and toppling years of bullying and oppression by receiving open credits for Spartacus and Exodus in 1960. It’s a story of a heroic character whose gumption carries him through some very dangerous and iffy circumstances, though it soft-pedals its criticism of his contradictions (he calls himself a communist and, as his friend points out, lives like a rich man, but that point needs to be investigated more). Jay Roach’s film doesn’t quite hit hard enough for something that covers one of the ugliest and undemocratic periods of American political history, particularly for the director of Recount and Game Change, but thanks to the surprisingly charismatic performance of its star (Cranston’s usual one-note maniacal style suits the subject well) and a few poignant scenes it manages to go down smoothly. Read Lee Grant’s autobiography for a greater exploration of the time period it describes, particularly in the case of individuals who were labeled guilty by association and blacklisted simply for refusing to cooperate.