A “Trumbo” for Our Times
By Skip Sheffield
The black-listing of brilliant, award-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for his political views by the House Un-American Activities Committee happened while I was still in diapers. All I knew about it was what I read in history books. With “Trumbo” it is gratifying to get a fuller picture of this scary time in American history when citizens were penalized for no crime other than their unpopular political views.
Brayan Cranston gives one of the best performances of 2015 as embattled but indomitable Dalton Trumbo in the movie titled simply “Trumbo.” Under the direction of Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents,” “Austin Powers”), John McNamara’s screenplay does not hew too closely to facts, but it gets the main truths right. Trumbo and nine of his Hollywood screenwriter comrades were in 1947 called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) to state whether they now, or ever had been a member of the Communist Party. HCUA was a pet project of ambitious right-wing Sen. Joe McCarthy, who is not a character in this story. In his place is the vicious and equally ambitious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with fiendishly wicked glee by Helen Mirren. In her corner is John Wayne (David James Elliott), who had become a super-patriot although he never served in any service.
Trumbo’s ever-loyal wife Cleo is played by a serene Diane Lane. Her serenity and loyalty is tested to its limit when Trumbo and his fellow members of the “Hollywood 10” were convicted of contempt of court for refusing to answer. Trumbo served prison time and he and the rest of the Hollywood 10 could no longer work at their trade.
Trumbo’s solution was to keep writing at a fraction of what he was earning, assigning the credits to fictitious authors. Most of the scripts he sold to unscrupulous, pugnacious small studio owner Frank King (John Goodman), who didn’t care where a script came from as long as it sold tickets.
Living under greatly reduced circumstances, Trumbo kept churning out scripts, sitting in a bathtub and chain-smoking the cigarettes that would eventually give him lung cancer and kill him as they did his best friend Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) before him.
Happily two men came along to help Trumbo break the black list. Actor Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) hired him to write the screenplay for “Spartacus.” Producer Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) really broke the ban when he asked Trumbo to write the screenplay for “Exodus” and insisted his name be listed on the credits.
Trumbo received belated recognition and even Oscars such as 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” for which he never received credit at the time. Best-known as Walter White the unhinged meth-maker of “Breaking Bad,” Cranston shows an amazing versatility in his portrayal of a defiant man who refused to be broken.