Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for Shockya. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.
Director: Jay Roach
Written by: John McNamara
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/8/15
Opens: November 6, 2015
If you went to school during the 1960s and considered yourself a liberal, you might have sung an ironic protest ballad called “Old HUAC” (unknown writer), the chorus of which is:
What a lucky thing it is for you and me,
That our freedoms are well guarded
By politically retarded
Men of unimpeachable integrity.
The House Unamerican Activities Committee was active during the forties until 1975. Its purpose was to root out American Communists, particularly in the showbiz industry, to subpoena them and, if they refused to testify or abstained from naming names implicating their fellows, they could be blacklisted. Blacklisted screenwriters and actors could not get a job anywhere if they were on the blacklist, so fearful witnesses might do what the committee wanted, cowards that they were. Now, people under severe conditions could do things that in retrospect were irrational but at the time they were considered understandable. During the Great Depression, the U.S. did not go Communist, thank goodness, but many Americans, mainly intellectuals, joined the Communist Party USA. They were for the most part idealists who believed that the wealth should be shared, an idea that seems to have found its way into our own century. When the Soviet Union allied up with the U.S., these Communists on our shores felt more than ever that there was nothing wrong with the political club they joined, but when the Cold War heated up, many Americans became fearful that American Communists were taking orders from Moscow and were determined to overthrow the government. The theory turned out to be preposterous but not before HUAC, the aforementioned Communist-hunting committee, blacklisted hundreds of people in Hollywood. One of the most famous was Dalton Trumbo, a major screenwriter responsible for knocking out scripts for a wide variety of sub-genres such as “Exodus,” “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus,” “30 Seconds over Tokyo,” and “The Brave One.” (See his résumé on IMDB.com—it’s huge.)
He was called before HUAC, which somehow discovered that he was a card-carrying member of the CPUSA from 1943 to 1947, and when he refused to name others that met at his home, he was jailed for eleven months and even worse, was blacklisted. He overcame the blacklist simply by writing screenplays under fictitious names, so when he won Oscars for “The Brave One” and “Roman Holiday,” representatives picked up the statuettes for him. Ultimately he was redeemed when a major director, Otto Preminger, proudly cited Trumbo’s real name.
The actors who performed in various roles as Trumbo’s friends, family and employers generally look like the people they portray. Bryan Cranston, best known as Walter White on the AMC drama “Breaking Bad,” takes on the title role with his Salvador Dali mustache and wide-framed glasses. He is not a choice made because of his name and popularity, but his selection as Dalton Trumbo has been most wise. Cranston spends his ample time in this film with a modulated, slow-paced voice, coming across like the real Trumbo whose smoking cigarettes with a holder (as did Franklin D. Roosevelt) and regular imbibing of good Scotch while writing in his bathtub would mark him as an aristocrat—hardly one who sought the uplift of the proletariat.
Family roles find him accepting the love and respect of his wife, Cleo Fincher Trumbo, portrayed by Diane Lane, and his daughter Nikola Trumbo, who at the age of 19 is played by Elle Fanning but who in more youthful days asks her dad whether he is a Communist, then whether she, Nikola is a Communist. She is asked what she would do if she had a sandwich and her classmate had none. “I would share it,” is her reply and that, simply put, is Communism in action. (More like liberalism, but we’ll allow movie hype.)
There are good guys and bad guys in the movie depending on whether they glorify or spit upon Trumbo. John Goodman as Frank King is a good guy who produces Trumbo’s movies. So is Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is a fellow lefty, but wait! When blacklisted, he could not get work, so he finked out and named names, but as he tells the story, we almost sympathize with him. Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) is pro-Trumbo and wants him to write the screenplay for “Spartacus,” but John Wayne (David James Elliott) is as ultra-nationalistic and anti-U.S. Communists as you might expect from a fellow who plays macho in every movie. Fellow writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K. in a non-comedic role) is a decent man, though he is not too wise about his health. After one lung is surgically removed, he continues to chain-smoke. Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), the leading gossip columnist of her time working in Los Angeles, is the worst kind of person, one who regularly puts Trumbo down as a “traitor,” and spreads her vile to her thirty-five million listeners.
This is really a terrific movie, and what’s more to its credit, it’s about a screenwriter. Screenwriting often makes or breaks a movie, yet those who use the typewriter rather than a megaphone are often neglected. Production notes put out by studios frequently mention the names of the directors on the front page but act as though nothing in print had anything to do with the quality of the movies. We get more than a basic picture of Trumbo as a person while absorbing the spirit of the times—the 1940s, 1950s (Senator Joseph McCarthy, ugh) and the 1960s up to the JFK inauguration. It’s good to know that the misguided wing-nuts for their comeuppance: McCarthy got condemned by the Watkins Committee in the Senate and then by the entire body 67-22 for deception and fraud. John Parnell Thomas, who chaired HUAC 1947-48, went to jail for corruption where, if we believe the movie, he became practically a cellmate of his nemesis, Dalton Trumbo.
You don’t want to miss this film. Jon Stewart could not have done a better job in skewing the extreme right wing, a faction responsible for making even the current Congress a laughing stock among people who think.
Rated R. 124 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-