If history is written by the victors, then the Hollywood-blacklist biopic “Trumbo” comes as a last laugh for all those communist-affiliated talents who spent nearly a dozen years forbidden to write at all. That’s a metaphorical last laugh, mind you, as John McNamara’s stodgy screenplay seldom inspires more than mild chuckles, passing up a rich opportunity to satirize the political hypocrisy of the paranoid times it depicts, and opting instead for a square, period-stiff homage to “Spartacus” scribe Dalton Trumbo, who stood up to the system and refused to let his voice fall silent. The latest in a series of politically themed TV movies from “Game Change” director Jay Roach (while strictly smallscreen in style, this one is set for niche theatrical release, courtesy of relative newcomer Bleecker Street), “Trumbo” allows supporting actress Helen Mirren and the unfamiliar faces playing yesterday’s stars to overshadow Bryan Cranston and his fellow movie martyrs.
The first of two collaborations between Roach and “Breaking Bad” star Cranston (the other being an HBO adaptation of his Tony-winning Broadway turn as LBJ in “All the Way”), “Trumbo” actually presents the trickier role, as it is also based on a real person, but one for whom most contempo audiences have little or no frame of reference — which explains why the movie drags for much of its two-hour-plus running time, only to make audiences perk up when they spot either a familiar face (John Goodman, Louis C.K.) or someone doing a John Wayne or Kirk Douglas impression. Meanwhile, affecting a hunched posture and surly accent, Cranston gives a character-actor perf in a role that begs for the Warren Beatty-like charisma of a self-righteous Red leader.
An old-school Hollywood screenwriter who did a fair amount of his best work in the bath, typing with a tumbler of Scotch in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, Trumbo was what they call a “card-carrying member of the Communist Party,” unshy about his political views — which had earned him acclaim in the literary world as the author of “Johnny Got His Gun.” After taking an outspoken, front-line stand in a labor dispute between the Conference of Studio Unions and the Hollywood majors, Trumbo attracted the attention of Los Angeles Times columnist Hedda Hopper, whose idea of patriotism involved stamping out the threat of communism in the industry, and who personally crusaded to get the commie sympathizers banned from the system.
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Whereas the town had previously observed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward the personal politics of its most valuable collaborators, suddenly Trumbo and nine other prominent creative figures are called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C., where they are asked to name communists working in show business. As the group’s resident “radical,” Trumbo insists on defying his interrogators, with the result that the so-called “Hollywood Ten” are held in contempt of Congress and forced to serve jail time. When Trumbo is finally released 11 months later — depicted as long enough for preteen daughter Madison Wolfe to have blossomed into a coltish Elle Fanning — he must sell his ranch and embrace humility, now that known communists have been officially banned from working in Hollywood.
Still, a writer writes, and despite the professional censure that resulted from standing by their unpopular — and allegedly seditious — political ideals, the Hollywood Ten can’t resist the compulsion to practice their craft — none more defiantly than Trumbo, who manages to win two Oscars for screenplays signed under false names, “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One.” At first, Trumbo and his comrades must settle for demeaning work, accepting bottom dollar to write quality scripts (like “Gun Crazy”) for the King Brothers, proto-Weinstein sibling entrepreneurs who leveraged their slot-machine-rental fortune into a schlocky B-movie shingle. As played by Goodman (as broad as he was in “Argo”) and Stephen Root, these scenes are by far the film’s most entertaining, teasing what it could have been had it embraced a more overtly comedic tone.
Working from Bruce Cook’s hagiographic and oft-criticized bio, and augmented with details gleaned from his surviving family, McNamara’s script puts much of its focus on the burden that Hopper’s Hollywood witch hunts forced upon Trumbo’s marriage (Diane Lane plays his stalwartly supportive wife, Cleo) without doing audiences the service of placing them in context, apart from a few historical details written out onscreen at the beginning. Though directors occasionally complain about MPAA restrictions, today’s film industry enjoys virtually limitless freedom of expression compared with the 1940s, when the censorship-prone Production Code acted upon the didactic premise that motion pictures “affect the moral standards of those who thru the screen take in these ideas and ideals.”
Even the seemingly tame “Trumbo,” if submitted to Will H. Hays today, would face severe cuts for its flagrant use of the “’F’ word” and gratuitous semi-nudity. Hopper would likely have a coronary, though her role is by far the film’s juicest (unlike fellow career smearer Nikki Finke, Hopper loved the spotlight), and Mirren plays her as if she were one of Disney’s wicked queens, with a revolving wardrobe of designer hats to hide her horns. Hopper’s success owed in part to her gift for gossip, and though the film frowns on her tactics, “Trumbo” ironically perks up anytime a famous figure appears onscreen.
Auds will clap when Trumbo puts Wayne in his place, reminding the patriotic actor that he spent World War II “stationed on a film set, wearing makeup, shooting blanks.” A late-film confrontation between the writer and left-leaning actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), who named names in order to put his career back in motion, allows Trumbo to give the sellout a piece of his mind. And the movie really starts to crackle in the last act when Kirk Douglas (whose brains and brawn are both embodied by “The Hobbit” hottie Dean O’Gorman) begs Trumbo to rewrite the sword-and-sandal epic that effectively ended the blacklist.
More than half a century later, communism has been effectively strangled out of American politics, but its persecuted practitioners are today seen as victims rather than traitors. Figures like J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy and now Hopper are treated in film as the bullies that they were, suggesting that such a witch hunt could never arise again. And yet, variations on the same thing could plausibly happen tomorrow — and still do, in other forms, as gays are exposed and driven out of teaching posts. “Trumbo” may be clumsy and overly simplistic at times, but it’s still an important reminder of how democracy can fail (that is, when a fervent majority turns on those with different and potentially threatening values), and the strength of character it takes to fight the system. Fortunately in Trumbo’s case, enough time has passed to give this tragedy a happy ending.