Film Reviews

GOES TO 11 – <em>Trumbo</em> (2015)

GOES TO 11 – Trumbo (2015)

Sidney Moore

February 2nd, 2016

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Hollywood turns the camera to the past to look at its own dark history in Trumbo.

Ian McLellan Hunter and Robert Rich were the names inscribed on the Oscars that should have gone to Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo celebrated his secret victories in his home with his wife and children, unable to take credit for his work due to his position on Hollywood’s blacklist.

It is a disturbing footnote in Hollywood’s history, rarely mentioned. In 1947, the ominously named House of Un-American Activities Committee began investigating members of the film industry, particularly screenwriters, for supposed involvement in Communist activities. Although it was not illegal to be a member of the Communist party, those accused became instant pariahs, blacklisted from working in Hollywood again.

One small group fought back. A group of ten writers refused to testify in front of Congress, leading to prison sentences and fines. They were more harshly ostracized than the rest.

Director Jay Roach’s film Trumbo follows one of these writers, Dalton Trumbo, who was at one time the highest paid and most respected screenwriter in Hollywood. Trumbo would go on to win Oscars for The Brave One and Roman Holiday, both written under pseudonyms, and is credited with helping to break the blacklist in the early 1960s.

The film does a superb job of recreating the fear and paranoia that existed in every facet of society during the Cold War, including the supposedly liberal and untouchable film industry, as well as showcasing the dehumanizing effects that being blacklisted caused. Lives were ruined. Livelihoods were destroyed. People went to prison. Some even committed suicide. In the emotional and grim portrayal of these events, Trumbo succeeds.

The film’s long time span (it takes place over several decades) sometimes makes it feel chaotic, as though it is attempting to put too much information into too little of a running time. This also leaves some storylines and characters feeling slightly underdeveloped, such as Trumbo’s working relationships with Hollywood heavyweights Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger. It also leaves those already familiar with Trumbo’s story wondering why they left out quintessential parts, such as his self-imposed exile in Mexico after the hearings, or why they chose to make a composite character out of several of the other writers who were blacklisted along with Trumbo.

However, Cranston’s stunning lead performance prevents the film from becoming the standard biopic. He makes Trumbo’s self-aware dialogue sound natural. This is no mere impersonation of a famous figure; Cranston so embodies the role that you forget you’re watching an actor on a screen. And of course, it is impossible not to root for a radical underdog who truly believes in what he is fighting for, especially one who calls his verdict fair, because he “had contempt for Congress.”

The movie tries to answer the question of what happens when politics interfere with art, but it also raises the question of whether it is possible to separate the two. As the art form with the widest reaching audience, and being operated by people who are both artists and businessmen and women, is there an obligation for artists to use movies for a platform for their political beliefs?

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