I wasn’t expecting to do another Cinema Shame column so soon, but I finally got the chance to catch up on one of the films from 2015 that I’d missed: Trumbo. This was a movie I’d been looking forward to because I love history, and it’s from an era I know a little something about: the Communist scare of the 40s and 50s. I never got to see it in theatres, but it’s now available for home viewing. So did it meet my expectations? In a word, yes.
Trumbo is the story of novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played fantastically by Bryan Cranston), who was one of several screenwriters in Hollywood who were members of the Communist Party. Hollywood was in the midst of a political nightmare as Congress began investigating the influence of the USSR in the movie industry. The industry became divided, and anyone thought to have any ties with Communism were blacklisted and prevented from working. Trumbo, along with 9 other screenwriters, were sentenced to prison for refusing to cooperate with the Congressional investigation. Conservative members of the movie industry also ensured that anyone who didn’t cooperate would be blacklisted, and would no longer be employable in Hollywood. That was the theory, anyway.
The main story of Trumbo centers around the fact that Trumbo, in fact, never stopped working; he simply stopped getting credit for his films. When the major studios refused to hire him, he went to work for B-Movie producers Frank and Hymie King (John Goodman and Stephen Root) and became busier than ever. He would farm out the scripts to his fellow blacklisted writers (including Alan Tudyk and Louis C.K.) His family got drafted into his work, including wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and children (his daughter Niki is played by Elle Fanning). The Conservative members of the industry are represented in the film by John Wayne (David James Elliott and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Hopper is very much the main antagonist of the film, constantly on the attack and ready to destroy anyone she saw as unpatriotic. Trumbo’s continued screenwriting became an open secret, and two of his scripts from this period won Academy Awards. Finally, with the help of Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), Trumbo was able to get his own name into the credits, no longer having to hide behind pseudonyms.
It’s hard not to love this movie. The acting is absolutely solid from start to finish, Cranston turns in a tour de force performance as Trumbo. His constant fight against the insidious nature of the Congressional investigations and blacklist is a stance that, given recent events, is very relevant in today’s world. Diane Lane and Elle Fanning put in admirable performances as Trumbo’s wife and daughter, and hold their own against Cranston’s occasionally single-minded focus. As B-Movie maker Frank King, John Goodman has some of the movie’s more memorable moments. Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper is also outstanding. Some of the real stars of the movie, though, are those cast as the old Hollywood heavyhitters.
Dean O’Gorman’s portrayal of Kirk Douglas is uncanny, and his unwavering support for Trumbo and his right to his own credit really kicks the movie up a notch. Christian Berkel’s Otto Preminger is somewhat less intensive as O’Gorman’s Douglas, but he’s still fantastic to watch. The same can also be said for the man playing Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). Robinson has one of the biggest character arcs in the film; he starts the film as host of a number of Communist meetings in his home, and he eventually becomes another of the blacklist’s many victims. Work dried up for Robinson for years as the studios refused to hire him. In one of the movie’s key moments, the Trumbo family listens to Robinson as he testifies before the HUAC Committee (which he did at least 3 times in reality). They sit there in shock as Robinson denounces a number of people, including Trumbo. A powerful scene. There’s just one problem; it never happened.
Historically, Robinson did appear before HUAC numerous times, and he did denounce former Communist groups he’d been associated with. However, he never once denounced anyone personally as a Communist, and for the film to even suggest that he did is, quite frankly, outrageous. The Communist witchhunts of the 40s and 50s, like any other time where one group is persecuted by another, were horrendous. As a film, Trumbo has a powerful statement to make about how persecution and fear can destroy lives. People were being denounced for what they thought, as opposed to what they did. Some lost careers, while others lost their lives. How Trumbo’s writer and director could try and tell a story like this while at the same time completely misrepresenting a real person’s experiences is beyond me. The movie deserves better, and we deserve better.
BTW, I feel it’s important to say that all this information I learned about Robinson I learned after watching Trumbo. When I was watching it, I thought nothing about Robinson naming names. I knew it had happened, so it didn’t bother me. That, to me, is the real problem with it; I didn’t even bat an eye when the movie suggested that one of my favourite actors of all time became complicit in the disgusting display of paranoia and hatred that is the blacklist. I just accepted it because the movie told me to. That in itself is an insidious thought.