In 1947, a group of writers and directors — the Hollywood Ten — were sentenced to prison for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Almost immediately after their sentencing, chief executives from every major film studio issued a statement severing all connections with the ten and effectively putting in place a politically based blacklist that would remain in effect for more than a decade.
There have been dozens of worthwhile documentaries and hundreds of books about this dark period in film history, yet the blacklist, the Hollywood Ten and the witch-hunting climate of the 1950s are subjects which Hollywood has, for the most part, been reluctant to address. Trumbo joins the small list of films (Martin Ritt's 1977 film The Front, the mediocre Guilty by Suspicion and a few scenes in The Way We Were) to look at the blacklist and its effects on both personal lives and the cultural climate. Directed by Jay Roach, who is better known for cinematic explorations of Austin Powers and the Fockers, Trumbo adds a human dimension to the distant political and historical details.
Dalton Trumbo was, arguably, the most well-known of the Hollywood Ten, having written the films Kitty Foyle, A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. He had also been a member of the American Communist party for four years at the time of his conviction. Like many blacklisted writers, he continued to work on films using fronts and pseudonyms. The first cracks in the wall of the blacklist appeared when two of Trumbo's makeshift names won Academy Awards; once Trumbo's work became an open secret and Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger agreed to give him credit for Spartacus and Exodus respectively, the blacklist was, for the most part, dead.
Trumbo was also, by many accounts, a rather prickly individual, known for his pointed mustache, an ever-present cigarette holder and his preference for writing while seated in a bathtub. The film shows how his frustration and ambition could often be as difficult for his family as the pressures of living under daily suspicion. Bryan Cranston plays Trumbo complete with all his flaws — the film makes no attempt to whitewash him — but never overwhelms his basic sense of justice. Supported by fine performances from Diane Lane and Elle Fanning, Cranston takes a bigger-than-life character and keeps him grounded.
For those unfamiliar with Trumbo's story, Roach and screenwriter John McNamara do an efficient job of sorting out the political details of the period by employing larger-than-life Hollywood figures — Hedda Hopper (played with enthusiasm by Helen Mirren), John Wayne, Kirk Douglas — to make it easy to sort out the passions of the period (although this is probably the first film ever to present Otto Preminger as a hero). There are a few times when they've altered details or compressed multiple characters into a single person, but for the most past the level of historical accuracy is admirably high.
The film uses Edward G. Robinson, known for his liberal politics, as a surrogate for the many friendly witnesses who named past associates to clear their own reputations, even though Robinson, when finally trying to salvage his career, made sure to identify only political organizations, not individuals. Similarly, Louis C.K.'s character Arlen Hird is a composite of different members of the Hollywood Ten, while the B-studio boss played by John Goodman is a fictional version of a Hollywood stereotype — albeit one who gets one of the best scenes in the film when he takes action against a would-be blacklister. It's entirely fictional, but it provides a well-needed moment of emotional catharsis in an otherwise largely cerebral film.
Trumbo's story — like most lives and historical events — doesn't fit neatly into an audience-friendly three-act structure, but the lack of a conventional plot is barely noticeable. The historical lesson is valuable enough to overcome such structural deficiencies. If a few dramatic shortcuts and Hollywood name-dropping are what it takes to bring this kind of history to a wider audience, so be it. If you think witch hunts and loyalty oaths are just an exaggerated anecdote from half a century ago, then you obviously haven't been following the current presidential campaigns. At a time when certain politicians are happy to embrace the rhetoric of the Cold War, of HUAC and McCarthy, even if they lack the apparatus to enforce it, stories such as Dalton Trumbo's need to be told.