Trumbo, the film about the life and achievements of iconic screenwriter and McCarthy Era activist Dalton Trumbo, makes its way to theaters on Nov. 6. A household name in the film industry, Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) becomes blacklisted — shunned and ostracized by the film industry — and imprisoned for his pro-communist views. Trumbo was a member of the communist party in the United States during the rise of anti-communist sentiment among the public that continued into the Cold War. The film accurately portrays the tense social and political climate during the Red Scare that plagued much of American society during the era and spilled over into the entertainment industry.
Director Jay Roach vividly captures the wave of McCarthyism sweeping Congress and the public in several scenes. Roach does so by changing from 1950s
black-and-white news segments to color re-enactments of Congressional hearings. This format adds flavor to the political drama.
Meanwhile, the masterful script illustrates Trumbo’s dealings with the rest of the blacklisted members, known as the Hollywood Ten. These sequences are authentic and get under the audience’s skin when it becomes apparent that the blacklist members’ freedoms are being taken away. Adding to the tension, segments of the film feature direct interviews with the Trumbo family, who are genuine in their descriptions
of what happened.
Additionally, the pairing of Louis C.K. and Cranston is excellent. C.K. plays fellow screenwriter Arlen Hird, a
straight-laced role in the film, and his character delivers great support in his central relationship with Cranston’s Trumbo. Together, the two battle through tense hearings with the House Un-American Activities Committee. They also debate among themselves to try to keep from selling out to avoid sentencing. This dynamic took what could have been an unfocused, dry, legal battle into a well-designed display of the fight against the Red Scare and disregard for their First Amendment Rights.
Trumbo and his allies then seek to re-start their careers by submitting screenplays under pen names while also subtly changing the cultural climate toward the blacklist. Trumbo actually wrote classic films such as The Brave One and Exodus under pseudonyms, while Spartacus was considered the turning point in the blacklist era. The portrayal of the writing of these films and their production, as well as public reception in that time period, is so immersive that it’s easy to get lost in the moment with it. On the other hand, Trumbo’s squabbles with elite society, the press, the government and his manager, Frank King (John Goodman), also add entertainment as he trades his humble and diplomatic persona for some very witty and well-timed remarks that make the film more memorable.
Cranston might have drawn upon his time in Breaking Bad for his talented involvement with a much more tender side of Trumbo’s life: his family. The pressure of being under scrutiny during the blacklist and being dehumanized for his political beliefs is a challenge for Trumbo in the film. It, at times, takes a toll on the family, and Cranston stays true to form in both his efforts and faults to protect his family. Trumbo’s daughter, played by Elle Fanning, is often a source of his inspiration. Cranston and Fanning’s chemistry as family
on-screen never seems hollow.
Trumbo could almost be an analogy to the life of a rock star or a professional athlete who has a setback and works his way back to success. But the story of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten was a very real attack on basic freedom of expression in Hollywood that was compromised during a turbulent political climate. As Trumbo says, “It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.” Trumbo balances the performance from being too much of a documentary, with a message that rings true today — one of freedom of expression. Individuals across the world are persecuted for speaking their minds. Trumbo celebrates that right in an entertaining tale.