Most people won’t have heard of Dalton Trumbo but he was a legendary screenwriter who could, seemingly, turn his hand to anything and write stories in days. He is perhaps best known as the writer of Spartacus, Exodus, Papillon and The Brave One to name but four from a prolific back catalogue. So how would a movie about an unknown blacklisted screenwriter work out?
OK, I’m starting to get worried now. Long-time readers will know I have an innate loathing of Oscar nominated films. I find them drab affairs more interested in long, lingering shots of a branch of a tree then of telling an actual story. However, for the last two or three years now I’ve actually really liked, even enjoyed, most, if not all, of the films up for one Oscar or another. It’s an odd feeling.
This brings us to Trumbo. Dalton Trumbo, played by Bryan Cranston, was a well-known and well thought of Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940’s who also happened to be a member of the Communist Party. Back then, America was ‘at war’ with Russia and pretty much anyone who looked at them funny. Communism was viewed as being Russian, not just Russian, you were a Russian spy if you had a certain belief that wasn’t ‘American’…haven’t I heard that somewhere before, recently? Anyway.
Because of this, Trumbo and a whole raft of Americans, whether they were communist supporters or not, were blacklisted. Once blacklisted by the Special Committee on Un-American Activities it meant you were a social pariah, you couldn’t get a job, some went to jail, some committed suicide. In 1947 in Hollywood there was a group known as the Hollywood 10 who were all blacklisted, one of these was Dalton Trumbo, he even spent time in jail.
Once out of jail Trumbo started to write screenplays once more. He used pseudonyms to get his scripts to the studios and a middle-man to get paid. Whilst blacklisted he wrote The Brave One which won an Oscar in 1956 for best original story. Jesse Lasky Jr of the screenwriters guild picked up the award in Trumbo’s place as the Oscar was given to Robert Rich, Trumbo’s pseudonym. This, along with others in a similar position, began to show the pointlessness of the whole blacklist system which eventually collapsed.
It’s easy to see why Cranston has been nominated for an Oscar for this role. He is fantastic. Intense, sad, passionate and slightly bonkers throughout. He is helped more than ably by a fantastic supporting cast including an excellent Louis C. K. as Arlen Hird, Diane Lane as Cleo Trumbo – his wife, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, Elle Fanning as Niki Trumbo – the daughter, John Goodman as Frank King and on and on it goes. All play their roles brilliantly with Mirren shining as the gossip columnist who really thinks communism is un-American.
John McNamara (mostly known for his TV work on Louis & Clark) takes writing duties based on the book by Bruce Cook. Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Fockers) is the man behind the camera. I think you’ll agree it’s an odd pairing to produce an Oscar nominated film but that’s exactly what they’ve done. The film does have the feel of a TV special about it, albeit a very well written and produced TV special. The ‘action’ is front and centre to ensure you don’t miss anything, jokes are short lived and the dialogue has quotes galore.
That said, this is a more than enjoyable film and is brilliantly timed coming as it does in these politically charged times of Trump and others lumping everyone into the same group because of their beliefs or religion. It seems some of us don’t learn from past mistakes.