Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo (2015)
  • Time: 124 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama
  • Director: Jay Roach
  • Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning, John Goodman


In 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs. Trumbo (directed by Jay Roach) recounts how Dalton used words and wit to win two Academy Awards and expose the absurdity and injustice under the blacklist, which entangled everyone from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) to John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

5 reviews

  • Perhaps America’s most shameful period remains the Red Scare years of the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked up the nation’s paranoia about a Communist invasion. The wholly unAmerican House UnAmerican Activities Committee persecuted, blacklisted, jailed, and ruined the careers, families and lives of many good intelligent people. They declared them traitors not because of anything they did but because of what they thought, in effect, their rather idealistic vision of what human society might be. Given the evidence, the issues and the total abdication of American values, that may well remain America’s most shameful period — though the Republican nomination and upcoming election may challenge for the title.
    For all its historical accuracy and its championship of free thought and expression, Trumbo remains a compromised, mushy American film. A European-style art film it ain’t. Director Jay Roach makes a considerable advance on his work with Austin Powers and the Fokkers but he’s not there yet.
    The film succeeds in reliving the period’s paranoia and in chronicling the terrible cost to American liberals when the government outlawed free thought. We get justified exposures of such figures as right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, the cowardly Hollywood producers, the principled turncoats like Edward G. Robinson and the odd hero like Kirk Douglas. Douglas offers the blacklisted Trumbo a screen credit on Spartacus but only after he’s tempted to fire the pariah.
    An acrid scene between Louis B. Mayer and Hopper exposes the culture’s bedrock antisemitism — which the Jewish moguls were discretely reluctant to confront on or off screen.
    Bryan Cranston plays Trumbo as a collection of mannerisms and eloquence. (Haven’t seen so much smoking in ages!) Both the character and the performer are impressive, as is the documentary postscript of the real Trumbo. He’s as close to a saint as America has coughed up in recent years. In an attempt to preserve his humanity, the film gives us too conventional an image of US family life, but for Dad’s bullying idealism and megalomania. Briefly mute the politics and this is another episode of Father Knows Best (and Mom just stands by her man).
    Initially this film is about 1950s American paranoia, its suspension of its citizens’ traditional rights and values, the politicized and split Supreme Court, and the danger of an foreign threat. But it’s also about America today. A savage power bent upon global domination — Communism, radical Islam — plus ca change…. the meme shows.
    Ultimately this film falls far short of European art cinema and remains commercial American. In order to provide a ending it sacrifices historic complexity. We leave cheered at our hero’s perseverance and success. Hollywood justice was done when he was finally recognized for his two Oscars and was openly credited in major films again.
    And yes, we’re reminded of the good peoples’ suffering and losses and the shameful participation of Nixon and Reagan. (Hilary Clinton’s early involvement in Senator McCarthy’s project is discreetly omitted.) It mentions the issue of fashion: screenwriters who extolled Russia when it was our ally against Hitler were later persecuted for that work when Russia turned foe.
    But the film still simplifies the issue. It represents Trumbo’s “communism” at its purest, as in his daughter’s instinct to share her theoretical favourite sandwich with a lunchless kid. What’s missing is the Left’s willful blindness to the blatant horrors of Stalinism. 1950s Communism was far different from the liberals’ original socialist ideals. The film gives no sense that its freethinking heroes may have been wrong. When actor Robinson tells HUAC he was duped it’s not about the Russians’ corruption and brutalizing of the socialist ideal but about his buddies meeting at his house — where the only plotting was not to bring down America but to protect their constitutional rights. The liberals here are whitewashed, made more valiant, innocent and intelligent than Lenin’s sobriquet for them, “useful idiots.” This omission weakens the film’s message for our present rationalizers and supporters of terrorism.
    What’s also missing here is nuance. It should be possible to be a Communist insofar as it rejects the current monstrosities of capitalism. It should be possible to defend the speech and thought of someone as wrong-headed as a 1950s Communist without agreeing with him. It should be possible to think beyond knee-jerk labels.
    So, too, today, it should be possible to name ISIS as one of the radical forms of terrorist Islam without rejecting the entire religion. And to confront ISIS without being willfully blind to its Islamic roots and claims. It should be possible to learn from the European example to be vigilant in evaluating Syrian refugee applicants without being immediately targeted as racist. Nor should the entire Syrian refugee body be barred because of the activity of some, however many. To avoid opposite extremities we need nuance. This film missed the chance to demonstrate that.
    This Trumbo finally succeeds because of two antithetical film-makers. Otto Preminger is the Teutonic martinet who hires Trumbo to write Exodus with the promise of a full screen credit. John Goodman plays a trash producer who hires the blacklisted writers to churn out his schlock. High culture, low culture, both these characters present an effective humanity and principle based on pragmatism, not blinded by a smug ideal.
    The two key Trumbo films are also emblematic. Exodus depicted the birth of the Jewish state after centuries of the uprooted Jews facing global persecution. Spartacus is the lowborn slave who leads a populist rebellion against the Roman Empire. Clearly Trumbo is presented as the slave who revolted against the repressive culture and led bis people back to the promised land — credits on major flicks.

  • I realize I have been complaining of late that I was getting tired of all the ‘Based on a true story” movies. Here’s one that is based on a true story that I know well although not quite as well as I thought and yet it pulled me in and held me through the credits. This is a movie that should be in the running for best picture because all departments were working in harmony with each other and, as a result, the movie flows easily and clearly.
    Screenwriter John McNamara has taken Bruce Cook’s book and not overworked the story or the characters. He tells the story of Dalton Trumbo, one of the people blacklisted from the film industry in the early 1950s. In the same way that Arthur Miller pointed up horrendous behavior of the House Un-American Activities Committee with his play The Crucible, McNamara points up what is happening today by showing what happened back then. People were labeled and virtually banished because someone, rightly or wrongly, accused them of being a communist which wasn’t then nor is it now against the law. In the United States we are allowed to have our own thoughts and ideas even if everybody else is against them. They are guaranteed in the Constitution. McNamara shows how quickly all that can be lost with no logical reason. People in power cannot take away our constitutionally guaranteed rights even if someone thinks they should be allowed to.
    Jay Roach has directed the movie simply and directly, not trying to point up the similarities between then and now but allowing the past to speak for itself. Some of Roach’s casting is a little off beat but it’s still perfect.
    Bryan Cranston, having proved himself on TV and on Broadway, is better on film. He plays Trumbo as a man who saw the humor in life but would fight for what he believed in. Helen Mirren is the Hollywood columnist, Hedda Hopper, who seldom showed her openly vicious behavior but left a trail of bloody ink in her wake. Not one bit of Mirren’s British life sneaks into Hopper. Easily the outstanding performance, after Cranston, belongs to Louis C.K. as another blacklisted screenwriter, Arlen Hird. This performance is closly followed by Alan Tudyk as writer Ian McLellan Hunter, Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife, Cleo, Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, Roger Bart as Buddy Ross, John Goodman and Stephen Root as Frank and Hymie King, Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger, Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas, and David James Elliott as John Wayne. All the performances are believable and many should be up for awards.
    I give this movie 4 cigarette holders our of 4. It is an excellent movie which can be enjoyed for the story it tells about the megalomania that sometimes takes over Washington D.C. and how people have fought it. Also, stay for the credits. There are still shots and film of the real Trumbo that are fascinating.

  • (Rating: ☆☆☆ out of 4)

    This film is recommended.

    In brief: An earnest biography that attempts to show the dark side of Hollywood’s blacklist and mostly succeeds.

    GRADE: B

    During the late 40’s and early 50’s, Dalton Trumbo’s life was enmeshed with the blacklisting of the Hollywood 10 and a nation bent on destroying the lives of many artists under the guides of patriotism and freedom. This film chronicles these dark times when one question surfaced and became a brunt of a media frenzy: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Asked by the members of the House on Un-American Activities Committee to many actors, directors, and writers, we became a voyeur nation, believing in the lies and propaganda reinforced by many conservative politicians and celebrities. (Sadly, history is once again now falling into the dangerous trap of repeating itself, but back to the movie…)

    So Trumbo takes its important message and follows a conventional structure where it introduces its characters, both famous and infamous, and strings together a series of historical events to focus on one man who becomes both saint and sinner in the process. The film too readily conforms to the standard formula narrative we have seen so many countless times before. Yet one has to admire director Jay Roach and his crew for their earnest efforts to depict a time in our country that needs to be re-examined. The film captures this era very well in its production values and lead performances.

    Still screenwriter John McNamara waters down the actual destructive forces at play, barely mentioning the true ringleader, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his right hand man, Richard M. Nixon, who helped to escalate the witch-hunt while advancing their own political careers. Instead it focuses on the conflict between this screenwriter and Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, who was a primary proponent of these investigations as well.

    Bryan Cranston plays Trumbo and he gives a strong and powerful interpretation of this obsessive and idealistic man. Helen Mirren plays the poison-penned reporter and the actress breathes venom from every pore. Their scenes together bristle with tension. Diane Lane also brings the human factor front and center as Dalton’s loyal wife, Cleo. Louis C.K. creates a memorable character as another blacklisted screenwriter, Arlen Hird.

    But other casting is spotty in the supporting roles, mostly due to our own prior knowledge of some of these Hollywood icons like John Wayne (a miscast David James Elliott), Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger, and Edward G. Robinson. Although the actors try valiantly to inhabit these characters, their portrayals come off weakly due to our movie memories of these individuals and their screen personas which never matches the physical resemblance of these men. (It’s a difficult task that sinks rather than syncs.) Lesser known people, those behind the camera, come off better. Plus, the mixing of archival footage with other screen celebrities the likes of Ronald Reagan and Robert Taylor further heightens the imbalance of fantasy and reality.

    Trumbo is far from subtle in its preachy point of view, but the subject is fascinating viewing. This man fought against traditional values and had an unorthodox vision that left a lasting legacy. This cinematic biopic, while highly commendable, lacks his passion and and plays too safely with the facts. It just becomes too mundane for the man himself.

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  • “I’ve got nobody else to be. I did what I had to do.” The words are spoken by actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), but they could also have come from the mouth of the man on the other end of the conversation, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston). Trumbo is the subject of Jay Roach’s film, itself based on the biography by Bruce Alexander Cook, and it presents the man in mostly heroic mode as a man who underwent many personal sacrifices to stand up for what was right.

    Dalton Trumbo may not necessarily be a familiar name for those born after a certain age, but he was one of Hollywood’s busiest screenwriters in the 1930s and 1940s, scribing such popular films as Kitty Foyle, for which Ginger Rogers won her Best Actress Oscar, and A Guy Named Joe starring Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne (Steven Spielberg remade the film as Always in 1989). He was also a published author – his 1939 anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, was critically acclaimed. Trumbo was also politically active and outspoken, known for championing workers’ rights and being a card-carrying member of the U.S. Communist Party. It bears remembering at this point that membership to the Communist Party was not illegal, nor was it so frowned upon at the time as Communists were opposed to the rise of Fascism and National Socialism in Europe. However, continually shifting alliances between the United States and the Soviet Union made for a mercurial political climate. What was once acceptable during World War II was now being touted as treason.

    It is during these highly charged times that Trumbo opens. Trumbo and nine other industry figures, including friend and fellow screenwriter Arlen Hird (Louis C.K., playing a composite of several real-life individuals), are castigated for their personal politics, brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C., and are held in contempt and sent to jail for refusing to name names. Trumbo is the most radical of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” and, as screenwriter John McNamara depicts him, the most crusading. Hird shares his ideology but reminds him that not everyone can afford to wait out what is fast proving to be a losing battle. “You talk like a radical, but live a rich guy,” Hird notes.

    Roach maintains a pace so zippy as to be rollicking in Trumbo’s first half, but it’s not too long before one realises that the scenes are more or less the same. Trumbo is persecuted and those who orbit this unintentional martyr are either allies – his supportive wife Cleo (Diane Lane), director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), actor Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), and low-budget film producer Frank King (John Goodman) – or enemies – the overly patriotic John Wayne (David James Elliott), producer and director Sam Wood (John Getz), and influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), all of whom join forces to ensure the Hollywood Ten are blacklisted. The simplicity and repetition of the rhetoric is nonetheless entertaining, but Trumbo is more interesting in its second half when the imprisoned screenwriter is released back into society.

    Forced to sell his family ranch and move into the suburbs, Trumbo takes whatever work he can get, accepting low pay for writing schlocky screenplays for which he receives no credit. Two of the screenplays he sells – Roman Holiday and The Brave One – are signed under false names and go on to win him Oscars which he cannot claim. In fact, Trumbo is most prolific during this period in exile. Working around the clock, aided by amphetamines, he endangers not only his health but his home life. He cannot help but be himself, which is to be a writer but also someone whose principles can veer into the self-righteous. Trumbo allows for a modicum of understanding for people like Edward G. Robinson, who were forced to name names so they could once again earn a living. Every one was a victim of those times, some more than others. Homes were lost, families disintegrated, livelihoods destroyed. What would you have done? It’s not so easy a question to answer.

    Cranston is unsurprisingly exemplary, but it would be remiss to say that he is overshadowed now and again by the impressive supporting cast. Mirren is the most vicious of vipers, Stuhlbarg is fast becoming practically every film’s invaluable asset, Berkel is Preminger incarnate, Louis C.K. is wonderful and essentially playing his persona in period garb, and Goodman and Stephen Root are aces as the Weinstein-like King Brothers.

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  • Jay Roach’s Trumbo, like many recent biopics so accurately lampooned in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), plays like a film version of a Wikipedia page, covering all the necessary key events from the topic’s life without so much as attempting to dig beneath the surface of the man at the centre of it all, ushering in actors to do their best impressions of famous people, a device that seems to serve as a ‘spot the movie star’ game for the audience as opposed to having much of an immediate effect on the story. You may leave the film a bit more educated on the subject of the infamous ‘Hollywood Blacklist’, but you’ll learn little about Dalton Trumbo himself.

    The film is far too polished to truly transport you back in time to the 1940’s and 50’s, failing to achieve a ‘lived-in’ sense of time and place. Beginning with Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) on the set of Our Vines Have Tender Grapes and on the verge of signing a contract that will make him the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, his affiliation with the Communist Party of the USA comes under scrutiny by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and actor John Wayne (David James Elliott), with the latter seen delivering a speech on the threat of communism. Trumbo, along with other screenwriters, are called to testify by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and find themselves blacklisted from Hollywood when they refuse to answer questions.

    What follows is little more than the key points in the history of this frightening abuse of free speech by a country that prides itself upon its democracy. It’s a topic that will anger, confuse and frustrate you, but the film fails at doing the story any kind of justice by demonstrating a startling lack of emotion. Cranston, who somehow received an Oscar nomination for his efforts, seems to sleep-walk through the proceedings. Every line he is forced to deliver seems to be plucked right out of a Hollywood movie, almost as if it is destined to be someday carved into stone. Having loved Cranston since Malcolm in the Middle, I don’t blame him for the limp performance. Director Jay Roach has made a career out of mediocre comedies, and he doesn’t seem to possess the skill to convincingly juggle the facts with any resemblance to character development.

    The people surrounding Trumbo are a collection of biopic archetypes and Hollywood celebrities. Trumbo’s relationship with his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) predictably goes from solid to strained, as the lengths he must go to in order to find work begins to take its toll. On paper, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper seems like an Oscar in the bag, but her antagonist is painted in such broad strokes that she may as well have been called Rita Skeeter, On a positive note, the only character acting like a believable human being is Frank King, a larger-than-life B-movie producer played by John Goodman, who employs Trumbo, working under a pseudonym, to doctor his scripts. He arrives like a force of nature, breathing fresh air into a film so utterly devoid of life. For a more informative and intimate film on the subject of the genius Dalton Trumbo, check out the 2007 documentary, also called Trumbo, instead.

    Rating: 2/5

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