It was disheartening to read in the “Trumbo” publicity that the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, including the now-reviled House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), was a “forgotten piece of history.”
On the other hand, the engaging and accessible biopic “Trumbo” is illuminating this shameful era of American history. And its writer, John McNamara (“Aquarius,” “Prime Suspect”), has written this noteworthy story in the style its protagonist, the great screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo (1905 – 1976) might have approved — an important message, encapsulated in a heartfelt screenplay, with great Hollywood stars and a happy ending.
Dalton Trumbo was once one of Hollywood’s highest paid and well-respected writers. His 1939 anti-war novel, “Johnny Got His Gun” won a National Book Award. He worked on such award-winning films as “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944), “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” (1945), and “Kitty Foyle” (1940) while he was a member of the Communist Party.
In 1947, Trumbo was one of the Hollywood film industry members subpoenaed to testify by HUAC about their Communist affiliations and whether they had been planting propaganda in U.S. films. Trumbo and nine others (the Hollywood Ten), refused to give information because the questions violated their First Amendment rights of free speech and association. HUAC had no facts or evidence of any illegality by the Hollywood Ten. Yet Trumbo was convicted of contempt of Congress, and after a long court battle, served 11 months in a federal prison. He and thousands of others were blacklisted from working for the Hollywood studios for more than13 years because of HUAC and provocateurs like the powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
Director Jay Roach (TV’s “The Brink,” “The Campaign,” “Meet the Parents”) maintains a warm and slightly sentimental bias when recounting the chronology of the HUAC events and their devastating impact on Trumbo, his family and his friends. Not being able to submit screenplays under their own names, Trumbo and others developed an underground business of writing screenplays using aliases. Also, other “approved” writers would submit the work under the approved writers’ names. The Hollywood Ten received rock-bottom fees and no recognition.
John McNamara, the biopic’s screenwriter, learned about this travesty when he studied at N.Y.U. with writer Ian McClellan Hunter in the 1980s. Upon congratulating his professor for writing the fabulous film, “Roman Holiday” (Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, 1953), Hunter explained that it was actually Trumbo who deserved the credit. Thus began McNamara’s interest in Dalton Trumbo.
Bryon Cranston (TV’s “Breaking Bad,” Broadway’s “All the Way”) gives a first-rate, nuanced performance as Trumbo, while Diane Lane (“Inside Out,” “Man of Steel”) as his long-suffering wife, does what she can to rise above her boring role as supportive wife and mother to the Trumbo children. Helen Mirren (“Woman in Gold,” “The Queen”) is wickedly perfect, although one-dimensional, as the queen of gossip, Hedda Hopper. Louis C.K. (TV’s “Louie,” “American Hustle”) is a bit too low-key in the role of Adrian Hurd, a composite of several members of the Hollywood Ten. Many of the smaller roles were very well-acted, particularly David James Elliott (TV’s “JAG”) as the swaggering but human John Wayne and Michael Stuhlbarg (“Steve Jobs”) as a beleaguered and burdened Edward G. Robinson.
I very much enjoyed watching the uplifting “Trumbo,” despite a few speechifying monologues, flashes of clumsy exposition (“Daddy, am I a communist?” asks one daughter) and often flat affect. Definitely, it’s a film worth seeing.
Since movies are now where many learn history, I hope that new generations of filmgoers will retain “Trumbo’s” important lesson. With some presidential candidates trying to outdo each other with their misguided sense of patriotism, we should remember that America’s First Amendment rights grant of us the right to think as we see fit, without fear of slander or retribution.
© Emily S. Mendel 2015 All Rights reserved