by David Robinson, Movie Reviewer
“Trumbo” focuses upon the trials — literal and figurative — of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the most well-known of the so-called “Hollywood Ten.” The film’s action opens in 1947, the onset of the Cold War era when the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating people who had ties with the Communist Party of America (a legal organization) during the 1930s and ‘40s. As Wisconsin’s Senator Joe McCarthy more flamboyantly did in the early 1950s, HUAC ruthlessly destroyed the careers of those who had aligned themselves with workers’ rights, supported strikes, and otherwise exercised their constitutional rights of free speech.
Trumbo, played by Bryan Cranston, was the most outspoken of the group, refusing to knuckle under to the committee or to name others who had shared his views. For his resistance, the well-paid writer was eventually sent to prison, serving eleven months in a federal penitentiary for contempt of Congress. Some of his fellows, exemplified by Arlen Hird (a composite character, played by Louis C.K.), also served time for their defiance. By contrast, Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) cooperated, confirming the participation of people whose names the committee already had.
All of the Hollywood Ten were blacklisted, the major studios refusing to give them work for a decade. Some of them scraped out a living by writing under pseudonyms: most famously, Trumbo won two Best Screenplay Oscars for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One,” while working with a “front,” Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), or writing as the fictitious Robert Rich. Much less serious work was supplied by B-movie producer Frank King (John Goodman), who churned out such forgettable epics as “Bad Men of Tombstone.”
Not until the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger openly supported Trumbo and put his name on their movies, did his career rebound from the attacks of such film industry luminaries as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played acidly by Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott). But the film focuses upon the extraordinary support that Trumbo got from his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane, who is excellent here), and children, most prominently his elder daughter, Niki (played by Madison Wolfe and Elle Fanning).
Director Jay Roach spends a bit too much time emphasizing what the irascible, alcohol-fueled Trumbo put his family through: after the first few diatribes, we get it. There is also too much speechifying in John McNamara’s screenplay, based on Bruce Cook’s biography of Trumbo. What could have been a tight, provocative movie — an eminently relevant, given today’s political atmosphere — drags too often. It turns lively when Goodman is on screen, and Mirren and Lane nicely contrast each other as women who figured importantly in Trumbo’s life, the former malicious and the latter loyal, though willing to call her husband out to protect her family. It’s also intriguing to watch Roach intercut actual documentary and movie footage into this film’s action, providing glimpses of stars such as Douglas and politicos from McCarthy to Ronald Reagan to John F. Kennedy.
“Trumbo” is rated “R” for language, all of which feels authentic to the character and action. It’s not likely to appeal to teenagers, though it would be valuable for them to see. And their parents could use the reminder of what happens when politicians play upon our fears by draping themselves in the flag while subverting the very principles upon which our country was founded.