Dalton Trumbo was undoubtedly the most successful blacklisted screenwriter in Hollywood. Before the blacklist he was among the town’s highest paid, having penned such films as ”Kitty Foyle” (1940), “A Guy Named Joe” (1943) and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944).
While on the blacklist during the era of the so-called “Red Menace,” he actually won two Oscars for writing “Roman Holiday” (1953) and “The Brave One” (1956) — only his name was on neither. No Hollywood producer could put Trumbo’s name in the writing credits without the very real threat of boycotts for hiring a pro-communist “traitor.”
After the blacklist was discredited, thanks in no small measure to Trumbo’s own campaign against its evils, he went on to rack up such impressive credits as “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), “Papillon” (1973) and an adaptation, which he directed, of his own career-launching, prize-winning novel, “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971).
The feature film “Trumbo” celebrates a writer whose own tumultuous life is indeed worthy of a movie. It’s a story featuring such real-life Hollywood personalities as John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson, Hedda Hopper, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas. It features courage and cowardice, obsession and compulsion, lives destroyed and the tenacity needed to rebuild.
This is not an easy story for a movie to tell. One must first give a primer on the whole blacklist era and the “Hollywood Ten” to moviegoers, who for the most part live in what Gore Vidal called “the United States of Amnesia.”
Then you have to work in the personal stories not only of Trumbo (Bryan Cranstron) but his family — wife Cleo (Diane Lane), his three children only one of whom, Nikola (Elle Fanning), is explored in any depth — plus make clear the convictions, ideologies and beliefs of a host of personalities caught up in an era of betrayal and injustice.
The movie, directed by Jay Roach, who in recent years has moved from comedies to politically-inflected TV dramas, manages all of this pretty well. It takes some necessary historical shortcuts — Trumbo and his family actually lived in Mexico City not Los Angeles when he was grinding out pseudonymous screenplays for about $1700 a pop. But the film tells a story spanning many years and characters in a crisp two hours.
Roach finds some dark humor in Trumbo’s end-around strategy against the blacklist. He continued writing but used “fronts,” writers who submitted his work as theirs, or simply faked names on a raft of hastily written B movies for a bottom-feeding producer named Frank King (played with undisguised zeal by John Goodman in the movie’s best scenes).
Roach wrings some poignancy out of the relationship between Niki Trumbo and her father. Niki turns out a pint-sized version of her dad, fiercely political and demanding he pay attention to her needs when he gets too caught up in a frenzied work schedule.
Roach also names names, calling out such Hollywood players as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren, pure evil), a small-minded bigot using her power with extreme malice, and John Wayne (David James Elliott), a deserving perhaps a somewhat unfair fall guy here as he was less extreme than others such as Ronald Reagan and Ward Bond.
Eddie Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) is shown in a sad though sympathetic light as an intelligent and conscientious political liberal who supports like-minded blacklisted friends yet betrays his own conscience when he finds himself blacklisted.
But the movie is too dry and airless. It lacks the passion of Trumbo’s convictions. Plus the production feels like it would be more at home on HBO’s small screen than the multiplexes’ larger ones.
Often simplistic and sometimes clumsy, the movie never quite gets how convoluted Trumbo’s convictions actually were. For he was not only a rich communist but one who supported the American Communist party’s isolationist stance to stay out of the war against Nazism far longer than a man as smart as Trumbo was should have.
The film’s screenwriter, John McNamara, working from Bruce Cook’s biography of Trumbo, has written a neat movie about a messy life. A halo settles over the embattled writer early in the movie only to tilt slightly during his blacklist ordeal when he realizes what damage he is causing his family by his single-minded pursuit of writing at cut-rate prices.
Cranston plays Trumbo as a witty though somewhat self-righteous pontificator, given to making speeches to friends and writing screenplays while in his bathtub, a cigarette never far away.
Some of his better scenes are with comedian-actor Louis C.K. as a fictional leftwing writer who is more down in the mouth but also more politically committed than Trumbo. The two illustrate the yin and yang of the Hollywood left in those dark years.
Diane Lane suggests the kind of dogged loyalty and patience it took to see a volatile, self-centered husband through his ordeal while remaining a good wife and mother.
Dean O’Gorman’s Kirk Douglas and Christian Berkel’s Otto Preminger are no waxworks performances but rather smart cameos that show the kind of arrogant disdain needed to break the blacklist.
Ultimately, “Trumbo” serves as a welcome reminder about a dark period of American history that is threatening to repeat itself with a newly energized rightwing that sees opponents as America’s enemies and any compromise as betrayal.
Opens: November 6, 2015 (Bleecker Street)
Production companies: Groundswell Productions, ShivHans Pictures
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Elle Fanning, Alan Tudyk, David James Elliott, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: John McNamara
Based on the book by: Bruce Cook
Producers: Michael London, Janice Williams, Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson, Nimitt Mankad, John McNamara, Kevin Kelly Brown
Executive producer: Kelly Mullen
Director of photography: Jim Denault
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi
Editor: Alan Baumgarten
R rating, 124 minutes