Ever since it happened, Hollywood has had a rather tortured relationship with the Communist Witch Hunts of the 1950s. At the time the Studios largely lined up with the government and co-operated with something which most felt was wrong, but they were too afraid of what would happen to business if they didn’t. They didn’t think they could risk being seen to be defending possible communists, even if the battle against them seemed to go against American values.
As a result, stars and directors gave names to Congress, and Hollywood drew up a list of names who were blacklisted out of the industry due to their possible communist sympathies. Ever since the tide later turned against those who’d co-operated and especially those who agreed to testify in front of The House Un-American Activities Committee, Tinsel Town has never seemed certain what to do about one of its darker chapters, and has generally given it a wide berth.
However, Trumbo attempts to look at it head on, telling the story of Dalton Trumbo, who in the 1940s and early 1950s was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. He was also a communist, which caught the attention of those who were fighting against the ‘reds’ in Hollywood and in Government. He ended up in prison for refusing to answer Congress’ questions and was then blacklisted.
Forced to work under pseudonyms, he led a cadre of other blacklisted writers who plied their trade anonymously, largely penning terrible movies. He then decided to fight back, to try and break the blacklist and get his name back on the pictures he wrote.
It is undoubtedly a fascinating story, and Trumbo certainly goes at it with gusto. Unfortunately, though it is a little uneven and never fully finds its feet. Part of its problem is that is tends to assume the audience already knows the issues surrounding the witch hunts and the blacklist, and ends up underplaying exactly what went on back then, and particularly how it didn’t happen in isolation but was merely one of the main frontlines of a very ugly domestic war. In fact, it’s not until the last five minutes where it really opens up to this and suggests the real impact this episode had across the US.
It also isn’t 100% sure where to focus, tending to reach around to various things without fully committing to anything. Trumbo is never bad, but it is often meandering and in its desire to be apolitical, often seems afraid to really hit hard, even if doing so wouldn’t really affect its supposed neutrality.
Thankfully it has a major saving grace, which is an absolute dynamite cast who more than give their all, often creating some brilliant moments. Bryan Cranston more than deserves his Best Actor Oscar nomination. He is incredible in the central role, chewing his words in spectacular fashion, so that even if what’s going on around him is rather loose, he’s riveting to watch.
He’s not the only one either, as he’s ably supported by the likes of Louis C.K. as (an oddly fictional) fellow blacklisted screenwriter, as well as Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, an actor who was Trumbo’s friend but ended up naming names in Congress. Helen Mirren has great fun as the venomous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who was at the forefront of the anti-communist fight in Hollywood, while Diane Lane is superb as Trumbo’s loyal wife, Cleo. With the likes of Alan Tudyk, John Goodman, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Elle Fanning also offering excellent performances.
If only the script could have matched the cast, Trumbo could have been a real contender at the Academy Awards. Instead we get a very watchable film and a surprisingly funny one, but one which doesn’t quite have the power of the true story that it’s telling.
Overall Verdict: A decent movie powered by some brilliant performances, which help to make up for a slightly soft script. It would also help to know a little about the Hollywood blacklist before you watch it.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac