Trumbo movie full length review - Trumbo or how to build immunity to blacklisting by being a screenwriter... and a damn good one...
It is very seldom that movies are made about the McCarthyism era and the Blacklisting that sacrificed the careers (and lives) of former successful directors and screenwriters on the Cold War altar.
It's as if Hollywood never really wanted to look back on the past, and as a twisted irony that wouldn't have displeased Trumbo himself, it took a comedic director Jay Roach, to make a film about Dalton Trumbo, the most emblematic (and maybe talented) of the infamous Hollywood Ten, and brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston. I'll get to Cranston at the end of the review.
Now, Hollywood is such a world of gold, glitter and glamor that we're all more comfortable with the sight of John Wayne riding his horse in Monument Valley than the actor in sad-gray suit testifying before the HUAC out of patriotism. And he wasn't the only one, Walt Disney, Gary Cooper, it was a whole lynching process, where you were either among the accusers of the accused. And opportunism, zeal, fear or terror took the way of conscience and made people do or say things they wouldn't have done or said in normal circumstances.
Take the case of Edward G. Robinson (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), the actor was an emigrant, just like Elia Kazan, they found in America a refuge and they embraced the American values to the point of their cooperation, as way to express their attachment to their adoptive country. There's another scene where Hedda Hopper, the former actress, the fierce crusader against Communist performers who 'infested' Hollywood (and wonderfully played by Helen Mirren), reminds a MGM exec about his Jewish roots and what Hollywood did to the emigrants from Eastern Europe. "Trumbo" is full of moments that are finally expressed at the end: there were no heroes or villains, no devils or saints either. Everyone was victim of a totalitarian, and bullying system.
This is why Dalton Trumbo, strikes first as a relatively naive person despite his brilliant eloquence. When asked if he's or not a member of the Communist party, he retorts that "some questions can be answered by 'yes' or 'no' only by a moron". Trumbo doesn't consider the world as binary, but it was the Cold War, and you were a Communist or a good American, either you cooperated or you were a traitor. No matter how right anyone was to question any belief that could lead the world to chaos two times in half a century, and some Communists were not clean either as they supported peace as soon as Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. Nevertheless, you had to say 'yes' or 'no', otherwise, it was contempt of Congress, and the Hollywood ten found themselves jailed, and fined, and kicked out the Writers' Guilds (even the founders), which means no work ever.
But the film is more light-hearted than its premise as it deals with the post-HUAC career of Dalton Trumbo, the most interesting one. Through a dynamic fast-paced rhythm, most of the scenes rarely exceed three or four minutes, we see Trumbo using fronts to present the script to Hollywood studios, and to eventually win Oscars for "Roman Holiday" and 'The Brave One', a film originally produced by B-movies studios King Brothers. Known as a hard-worker and versatile writer, Trumbo used many fake names and worked on several projects in the same time and even used his family to find projects, answers the phones or send the script. Even though it heavily affected his family life, Trumbo invented a form of Resistance, proving that, after all, he was a good American.
Indeed, there's business in show business and Hollywood can't afford to lose a man who makes good scripts. In Trumbo's case, quality paid off but there was more to it. While some performers were diminished by the blacklisting, as a screenwriter, Trumbo was immune because the very status of the screenwriter is to work in the shadow, whereas actors can't do without their image, and this is maybe why Eddie Robinson were forced to cooperate. Trumbo's heroism was driven by principles, but convenience too. And gradually, his talents takes him back to bigger projects, and 1960 turns out to be the key year for him with such projects as "Exodus" and "Spartacus". "Trumbo" is not just a biographical drama covering the darkest pages of Hollywood history, it's also an ode to talent and hard-work.
The film is served by a great cast, John Goodman, Louis CK, Helen Mirren who should have gotten an Oscar nomination, and that guy who's very convincing as Kirk Douglas (I checked his name, Dean O'Gornam). I wish screen writing was depicted as a more creative process than the usual author feverishly typing while filling an ashtray, but the film features some good one-liners and exchanges about movies, and I'll use one. Trumbo says that if all the scenes of a film are great, it becomes a bit monotonous, well, I don't know if it's a compliment, but the film never gets monotonous for that matter.
Now, I promised a few words about Bryan Cranston.
The paradox of some good movies is that they make you care for how good the actors are, which kind of distract you from the characters they play. I don't think there's one scene in "Trumbo" where I wasn't mesmerized by Bryan Cranston's transformation. It's a flamboyant performance, the kind that looks over-the-top, with all the mannerisms, body language and that damn cigarette holder, but actually under-cooking the role would've made it worse, it drives the story with an energy and a passion that is the very essence of screen writing.
In a way, you can feel in Cranston, the passion of Trumbo, but maybe it's precisely because you got the right actor for the right character that this biopic works, and it does work. And for that, he deserves his first Oscar nomination, and I don't think it will be his last.