Movie review: Trumbo

Movie review:  Trumbo

A little slow down over the holiday this past week gave me and a few friends the opportunity to take in a feature presentation at Tulsa’s Circle Cinema in historic Whittier Square.  Showing on Screen 2 on Thanksgiving Night was director Jay Roach’s biopic Trumbo, a dramatization of the life, work and struggles of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.  Actor Bryan Cranston delivers a convincing performance in the title role.  Trumbo, an A-List screenwriter with a strong social conscience, took a stand against the abuses of capitalism on American workers as well as rising European fascism in the 1930s and eventually joined the Communist Party (CPUSA) in 1943.  I love the way he dealt with the cognitive dissonance posed by his wealth and his political persuasion.  According to Trumbo, “It’s the perfect combination! The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus, but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.”  By 1947 the nation was settling into a long term Cold War siege mentality and certain members of Congress with a political interest in fanning the flames of Communist   hysteria were looking for Reds in the government, in the military, and of course in Hollywood.  Being a known sympathizer with striking workers, liberal Democratic politicians, and of course the CPUSA, Mr. Trumbo received an invitation in the form of a federal subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol.  Bound and determined to find out whether or not Communist agents had been planting Red propaganda in U.S. film, Trumbo was questioned relentlessly.


Demanding answers, the HUAC chairman was direct.   “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”  Trumbo responded “Many questions can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ only by a moron or a slave.”  The pointed query by committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas (played by James Dumont) was one which Trumbo elected to not answer nor did he cooperate by giving names of other known members of CPUSA or liberal/leftist colleagues or associates.  His refusal to answer the questions posed by the HUAC members resulted in receiving a conviction for contempt of Congress.  When this conviction was upheld by the courts Mr. Trumbo received a sojourn to Club Fed.  While serving his sentence at the federal prison in Ashland, KY the former chair of HUAC eventually joined him as an inmate for tax evasion, a bit of poetic (and real) justice.

After serving his prison sentence Trumbo finds himself back in Hollywood and on the blacklist.  He eventually resorts to writing screenplays under assumed names for low budget producer Frank King portrayed by John Goodman.  I did appreciate the way the “rich guy won with the cunning of Satan.”  I never got the final count of how many A-list scripts were actually the work of a blacklisted writer but we are way into double figures.

Director Roach gave a reasonable glimpse into the politics of Hollywood.  I must admit I found myself being rather disappointed in people like Edward G. Robinson (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) lamenting about having to sell his Van Gogh painting to pay his legal fees.  Robinson cooperated with HUAC and gave names but had to get the assistance of the Screen Actors spokesman John Wayne (played by David James Elliott) to get back in the good graces of the studios.  One of Mr. Wayne’s fellow actors (Ronald Reagan) in later years clearly verbalized his contempt for “style over substance” and the Duke most certainly exuded that very concept.  Columnist Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren) carried a lot of weight with her publication but her overt anti-Semitism was pretty damn disgusting.

At the end of the day, Dalton Trumbo was a workaholic who involved his entire family in his effort to earn a decent living.  A-list directors and actors demanded his work and thereby the entire premise of American free enterprise came shining brightly through:  it is better to be gaining wealth with a quality product rather than to be facing insolvency with a mediocre to crappy one.

I recommend watching this movie for its historic significance.  Before our Congress once again allows fear to dictate who can work and who cannot based on politics please remember that conservatives did not invent patriotism.  They are the first to wrap themselves in the cloak of it and use it to fan the flames of hysteria in times of crisis.  Also, never underestimate the stupidity of people in large groups.

I rate this picture four out of five stars.