Monday, February 8, 2016

Trumbo: The Writer Strikes Back

Most people have heard of the Hollywood Blacklist in the 1940s and 50s, when Hollywood studios were forced to dissociate themselves from anyone who might have ties to the Communist Party. Trumbo tells the extraordinary true story of one such accused man, and the manner in which he fought back against this witch hunt.

Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo, one of the highest-paid screenwriters in 1940s Hollywood. Everyone flocks to him to punch up their scripts or deliver guaranteed blockbusters. He even has a National Book Award for the novel, Johnny Got His Gun. However, at the same time, he is a proud member of the Communist Party of the USA, and a firm believer in worker's rights, eagerly campaigning for Hollywood labor unions and their demands for fair wages. Various studio bosses are unimpressed with his antics, but Trumbo thinks it is only fair that if he gets paid so well to write movies, the people who help to make those movies should be equally well compensated.

However, once Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy commences with his Communist witch hunt, Trumbo pays dearly for his zeal. He and his friends are called up to Washington for a hearing and are sent to prison for eleven months for contempt of Congress as they refuse to provide a straightforward answer, in rightful protest that this entire thing is a violation of their first amendment rights. Once Trumbo returns from prison, he is banned from writing for any studios and is desperate to figure out a way to earn money to support his family. And then he hits upon a brilliant scheme - still write scripts, but put fake names on them or get non-blacklisted writers to palm the scripts off as their own. He quickly sets up an enterprise with his fellow blacklisted writers and suddenly all of Hollywood is unknowingly (or often knowingly) making movies written by the men they worked so hard to discredit. Trumbo even wins two Oscars under assumed names, quite the feat for a man who is ostensibly banned from screenwriting.

The subject matter is nothing to laugh at but Trumbo is an exceedingly entertaining movie, thanks to Cranston's central performance. He can showcase both his comedic and dramatic chops to full effect and he doesn't shy away from exposing Trumbo's temperamental flaws alongside his witty genius. Helen Mirren also offers up a great supporting turn as gossip queen Hedda Hopper. I always thought of Hopper as nothing more than a harmless page 3 columnist, but this movie portrays a woman with a decided ax to grind under the guise of patriotism, who commands a great deal of power with her vitriolic pen. Supporting performances from Diane Lane and Elle Fanning as Trumbo's wife and daughter are equally solid, while there are a slew of actors entertainingly portraying famous names of the day like Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, and Edward G. Robinson.

Trumbo is a relatively fictionalized account of true events and has been criticized for historical inaccuracies, but the core of the story is still fascinating. I had never heard of Dalton Trumbo and was amazed to learn that he had secretly penned Roman Holiday, one of my most beloved movies. The movie also  provides a thorough account of the varying ways people reacted in the dark era of McCarthyism. Not everyone could be a hero: some named names to spare their own careers, while others zealously went after the Communists in a fit of patriotism, only to later realize they might not have right on their side. While the script is fairly conventional, the strong central performance ensures this is a tale that will stick with you and remind you that the golden age of Hollywood wasn't quite so lustrous.

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