The Hollywood Blacklist and the reaction of America to Communism has been something I’ve been interested in for a long time. Hearing all the ways in which members of the Communist party and anyone who even vaguely supported anyone suspected of sympathising with Communism were derided as terrorists is equal parts fascinating and horrifying and numerous films have done great work bringing this across. Whilst the high point of these films will always be Good Night and Good Luck, there have been other excellent films in the past few years like Bridge of Spies, with Trumbo being the latest great film to focus on this terrifying time in US politics.
The film concerns screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, an ardent left winger who, alongside being the highest paid writer in Hollywood, is a vocal supporter of the rights of the workers (often supporting strikes others in the film industry hold) and is a member of the Communist party. As a result, he is called before the House Committee for Un-American Activities and refuses to testify as he hasn’t committed any crime. He, along with 9 others who were called before the committee, hoped to use the right to free speech in the first ammendment to ensure they would wouldn’t go to prison but the Supreme Court doesn’t go their way and the Hollywood 10, as they’re known are sent to jail and get blacklisted by the studios in order to avoid their films being boycotted. Once he’s released from prison, Trumbo finds it hard to get work, having to write B-movies to make enough money for his family, which also puts a strain on the relationship between him and his family. This film is a great rallying cry for the allowance of freedom of speech and the dangers of punishing people for their political ideologies. The paranoia over communism that’s present throughout the film shows the environment that is needed for freedom of expression to be denied (something which is very timely considering the Islamophobia in the Republican party), along with the institutions that form and prominent figures used to demonise people (in this film represented by Hedda Hopper and John Wayne) and Trumbo is very much against this treatment of people. We see the heartbreak in Trumbo when he cannot claim credit on some of his most successful screenplays (notably Roman Holiday and The Brave One), along with seeing the physical tole it’s taken on some of the others on the blacklist, alongside them being out of work and unable to make enough money to provide for their families. I do feel that the other members of the Hollywood 10 could have been explored a bit more but the personality of Dalton Trumbo makes it clear why he was the focus, which I’ll get into more when I talk about the performances in the film. The film also does a good job showing the damage Trumbo did to his family during the time he was blacklisted. He becomes a bully and emotionally abuses his family, his selfishness coming through really effecitvely, it being clear that all of Trumbo’s frustrations with the blacklist are being released onto his family, which makes you want to see the blacklist ended all the more. Whilst what I’ve said may make the film seem really heavy, there are a lot of great comedic moments, the personalities of the characters shine through, there’s a lot of great comedic lines courtesy of John McNamara’s excellent script, especially in the scenes related to the screenwriting process. There’s also a fiar deal of hope at the end of the film when Trumbo gets hired to write Spartacus and Exodus signalling the beginning of the end of the blacklist. However, the story does have some problems, notably that some characters disappear for long stretches, making me think that the film was cut down from a run time closer to 3 hours, which ended up removing these scenes.
The acting in the film is excellent throughout. Bryan Cranston is excellent as Trumbo. He brings across the eccentric personality and commitment to free speech and the rights of others brilliantly, but he doesn’t show Trumbo to be a saint. We see that he is selfish, how he puts his financial stability ahead of his ideals and how he alienates his family, not seeming to realise the damage he’s doing. As his family, Diane Lane and Elle Fanning are great, showing their own idealism and their anger towards Trumbo, along with their respect for what he’s doing, for the most part, although the other members of Trumbo’s family don’t get as much screentime as they should. Louis CK gets some great moments as composite character Arlen Hird, showing his conflict over whether or not to do the acitons which would put him in the Hollywood 10, along with showing the physical tole the blacklist puts on people and how he cannot express his ideals. Helen Mirren does a great villainous performance as Hedda Hopper being a great, slimy, hateful character, alongside David James Elliott who does a great John Wayne impression, both of them doing a great job showing how the public can be turned to hate others. Another great impression is done by Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas, who is fun to watch and adds some hope into the film. In terms of heartbreaking performances, even more impressive than Cranston is Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G Robinson. At the start of the film we see his liberal idealism, paying the legal fees of the Hollywood 10 but as the film goes on and we see him being denied work because of his ideals, he has to betray his friends and gain the support of John Wayne, with Stuhlbarg’s performance in these scenes being heartbreaking to watch, as he knows the scale of his betrayal but has been forced to do so due to pressure from the government and the wider Hollywood system. John Goodman meanwhile steals the scene in every scene he’s in as Frank King, head of B-movies studio King Brothers Productions, a lot of the best laughs in the film come courtesy of Trumbo, many of which feel very Coen-esque, particularly a scene involving a baseball bat. Other fun performances, albeit underutilised, come from Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (although he’s just doing a riff on his performance as Adebisi from Oz), Roger Bart and Stephen Root.
The technical elements of the film are really well handled. The production design replicating the details of the 50s and 60s are brilliantly handled, along with the strong costume design. The use of real life footage and the way it’s edited into the film is brilliantly done, the music does a good job building the atmosphere and the aging make-up used is excellent, allowing us to see the age of the characters really naturally. The only time the aging doesn’t work is the shirt from Madison Wolfe to Elle Fanning, the obvious age difference between the actresses, especially since the character is only meant to have aged a year, making this part a bit unbelivable.
Overall, Trumbo is a very strong film. Sure there are some problems with the plot and some pacing issues, but the overall message and characters are excellent, the performances, especially from Bryan Cranston are strong and the period details are brilliantly executed. This is an incredibly timely film considering that a lot of details about the blacklist and McCarthy-ism are starting to be repeated and I highly recommend it.
My Rating: 4.5/5