In Trumbo we see a different version of Hollywood in the 1950s than that in the Coen brothers’ ‘Hail Caesar!’. In Trumbo we see ‘The Black List’ the banning of artists for their beliefs. The impact of this hidden, largely unpublicised list has a catastrophic effect. Some people die, many are imprisoned and family members and friendships destroyed as collateral damage. Hollywood’s touched on this topic before. As long ago as ‘The Way We Were’ and as recent as ‘Good night and Good Luck’ Clooney’s superb story of Morrow’s take down of McCarthy,
Trumbo the professional is something we’re all familiar with in the modern age. We know who Aaron Sorkin is, we know who Alan Ball, Lawrence Kasdan and Gary Ross are. The screenwriter was less visible in the past than they are today. They do more than write for TV and film, screenwriters do speeches for celebs (Sorkin’s commencement speech for Steve Jobs), script polishing and rewrites for studios and directors.
The Black List arose because of HUAC the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a witch hunt of radical and communist thinkers at the growing fear of the soviets reach into democracies during the cold war. HUAC ran forever (not finalised until 1975) and sought to protect Americans from communist influence. The context is important and Trumbo sets up this context quickly, succinctly and without fuss. The Communist Party of America started as a direct opposition to the fascism of Hitler, Mosley, Mussolini and Franco.
So in WW2 the Soviets are allies but at the end of the war that all changed. Life long strongly held beliefs were no longer publically safe and the politics of fear was more important than the truth. This is as true today in 2016 as it was in the 1950s.
One by one Trumbo and his writers and actor friends are summoned before HUAC. Trumbo choses a strategy that depends on the current liberal SCOTUS throwing out HUAC’s contempt of U.S Congress charge on first amendment grounds. This strategy falls to pieces when two liberal Supreme Court justices dies, one at the young age of 55. Trumbo and his friends faith in the US Justice system goes awry and he is found in contempt of Congress and serves four years for what he believes.
Once out of jail Trumbo finds himself on the Black list and unable to work. He literally loses the family farm and moves to the leafy burbs where the neighbours recognise him as the commy he is. To feed his family and survive he sets up a black market business to subvert the Black list. His intial work is for C grade producers King Brothers ( an outstanding John Goodman and Stephen Root).
Then Trumbo’s luck changes as two black market scripts win best screenplay at the Oscars. Soon the A list is knocking (Kirk Douglas with Spartacus and Kubrick in tow).
Every film needs an antagonist to the protagonist and in this film that is Heeda Hopper (Helen Mirren in what Xan Brooks calls her ‘Wicked witch of the west mode’) and John Wayne, known by one and all as ‘Duke’.
Trumbo is a great film and the known and unknown cast are strong across all major and minor roles. There’s a very good reason for this and that reason is simple it’s called Jay Roach. Yes he of Austin Powers fame but more so the Jay Roach of ‘Recount’.
Diane Lane one day will get a lifetime achievement award for all the times she’s played a stoic Mom. This Diane Lane Mom is one of her best. Brian Cranston gives a mannered performance as Trumbo, it’s a variation of Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing in ‘The Imitation Game’. Michael Stuhlburg is great as Edward G Robinson as is David James Elliot as John Wayne and the best of a great lot is Louis C.K as Arlen Hird. This is great story telling and you should go see it.