Synopsis: In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.
Release Date: November 20, 2015 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Biography, Drama
One of the most embarrassing times in American film history occurred just after World WarII when the country’s politics and patriotism got the best of it. The House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, was formed to uncover citizens with ties to the Nazi and Communist parties. In 1947, the committee turned its witchhunt towards the Hollywood motion picture industry, and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo got caught up in the middle of it. Trumbo is his story.
Trumbo stars Bryan Cranston (Godzilla, “Breaking Bad”) as Dalton Trumbo, one of the biggest and brightest screenwriters of the 1940s. He also happens to be a member of the communist party, an affiliation which doesn’t sit well with The House Un-American Activities Committee. Along with several of his peers, Dalton is called to testify before HUAC, but he refuses to answer any of the committee’s questions and is jailed with nine other filmmakers – “The Hollywood Ten.” Their problems begin when they are released from jail, however, as the group finds themselves on an industry blacklist that prevents them from working in Hollywood. Undeterred, Dalton sets up an assembly line of screenwriters, pumping out and selling scripts with fake names on them. As the movies that Dalton and his team write get more and more successful, people – both enemies and allies – start figuring out what Dalton and his fellow blacklisted writers have been doing.
The script for Trumbo was adapted from Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography of Dalton Trumbo, simply titled “Dalton Trumbo,” by television screenwriter John McNamara (“Aquarius”). The film was directed by Jay Roach, the man behind both the Austin Powers and the Meet the Parents franchises. Roach seems to bring his own stamp to the material; for being a document of one of the darkest periods of cinematic history, Trumbo has a surprising amount of levity. It is a dark and dramatic movie, but it doesn’t ever take itself too seriously, doling out lots of sarcastic and sardonic humor in the process. It’s an infuriating movie, but the humor allows the audience to breathe a little in between the fits of anger.
Aside from the communist being the hero, Trumbo doesn’t really have a specific political slant, but it does make a couple of good points about the division of wealth in America. There’s a character named Arlen Hird (played by comedian Louis C.K. from “Louie”) who is a composite of several of Trumbo’s real-life Hollywood Ten peers. At one point in the film, as Arlen and Dalton are standing in the spacious backyard of Dalton’s estate overlooking his private lake, Arlen points out Dalton’s hypocrisy by telling him that “communists don’t have their own lake.” In another scene, Dalton is explaining communism to his daughter with an analogy – he tells her that she has a ham sandwich and her friend doesn’t, and asks her what she does. Does she sell the girl a sandwich at an exponentially inflated price? Does she lend her friend the money to buy her own sandwich at a ridiculous interest rate? When the girl says she would share her sandwich, Dalton tells her that she is a communist. Leave it to Dalton Trumbo to explain communism in a way that sounds both reasonable and charitable.
As far as biopics go, Trumbo is one of the best in recent memory. Not only is it meaningful and thought-provoking, but it’s highly entertaining, and that’s a brilliant combination.
As the central figure and title character in Trumbo, Bryan Cranston is the obvious lead in the movie, and he’s great. Just as the character is supported by his family, Cranston is supported by the talented actors who play his family, particularly Diane Lane (The Perfect Storm) as his wife, Cleo, and Elle Fanning (Super 8) as the oldest incarnation of his daughter, Niki. At first, Louis C.K. seems like a strange choice for Arlen Hird, but the comedian plays both devil’s advocate and the voice of reason to Cranston’s Dalton Trumbo with the perfect amount of piss and vinegar. A big chunk of the rest of the cast seems to have been picked as much for their physical resemblance to their real-life counterpart as they have for their acting ability, with Dean O’Gorman (The Hobbit movies) as actor/producer Kirk Douglas, Christian Berkel (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as director Otto Preminger, and David James Elliot (“JAG”) as cowboy/tough guy John Wayne. Other actual people are not quite as closely portrayed, with Michael Stuhlbarg (Pawn Sacrifice) as actor Edward G. Robinson, John Goodman (Argo) as producer Frank King, and Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold) as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Finally, the film has Alan Tudyk (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) as non-blacklisted writer Ian McLellan Hunter and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Pompeii) as one of Dalton’s fellow prison inmates. There are a lot of big names in Trumbo, and they all provide big-name performances.
Cinematographer Jim Denault (Boys Don’t Cry, The Campaign) gives the imagery in Trumbo a unique, vintage look. The film was shot mostly in and around New Orleans, which does a pretty convincing job of playing Old Hollywood for the screen. Photographically, most of the movie has a flat, undistinguished look to it, but every once in a while Denault gets creative and really goes retro by making the movie look as if it was shot on old television cameras or 16mm black & white movie film. It ends up looking a bit like the older scenes from Forrest Gump, with the actors appearing as if they are actually in a film clip from the fifties. For example, much of the exposition is delivered through a news gossip program hosted by Hedda Hopper, and her shows look as if Helen Mirren has time-machined back to the forties. It’s a fun gag, and one that Denault pulls off well, really adding a lot to the authentic new-vintage visual style of Trumbo.
The soundtrack to Trumbo is a lot of fun. The bulk of the music, provided by composer Theodore Shapiro (Danny Collins, Infinitely Polar Bear), is made up of swinging jazz music, full of rhythmic bongos, silky woodwinds, blaring saxophones, and rock-steady bass guitar. This hip soundtrack is augmented by period songs from artists such as Billie Holliday, The Mills Brothers, John Lee Hooker, and Big Jay McNeely. Also, because it’s a movie about Old Hollywood, snippets from a couple of Trumbo’s movies – Roman Holiday and Sparticus – can be sneakily heard in the background of certain select scenes. At times, the soundtrack can be a jazzy one-trick-pony, but there’s still a ton of great music in Trumbo.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Jay Roach
- Producer(s): Kevin Kelly BrownMonica LevinsonMichael LondonNimitt MankadJohn McNamaraShivani RawatJanice Williams
- Screenwriter(s): John McNamara
- Story: Bruce Cook
- Cast: Bryan Cranston (Dalton Trumbo)Michael Stuhlbarg (Edward G. Robinson)Diane Lane (Cleo Trumbo) Helen Mirren (Hedda Hopper)David James Elliot (John Wayne)Alan Tudyk (Ian McLellan HunterLouis C.K. (Arlen Hird)Elle Fanning (Niki Trumbo)John Goodman (Frank King)Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Virgil Brooks)Roger Bart (Buddy Ross)Richard Portnow (Louis B. Mayer)
- Editor(s): Alan Baumgarten
- Cinematographer: Jim Denault
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer: Daniel Orlandi
- Casting Director(s): David Rubin
- Music Score: Theodore Shapiro
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA