As a fledgling scholar working in classical Hollywood, I was very excited when I heard about Trumbo, the biopic about the famed member of the Hollywood Ten. This group of screenwriters and directed would go down in history as a mostly principled group of men who refused to cave in to the anti-Communist paranoia that swept the nation in the wake of World War II.
The film essentially charts the process by which the Hollywood Ten is blacklisted by the industry due to their refusal to name names before HUAC. After languishing at King Brothers Productions (during which he is also compelled by economic necessity to take on more and more projects), Trumbo at last begins to claw his way back into respectability with The Wild One. However, it is not until a young actor and producer named Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and a dour director named Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) intercede that he finally breaks the blacklist, and Trumbo’s name is openly acknowledged in the credits of both Spartacus and Exodus. The film ends with a vindicated Trumbo delivering a heartfelt and deeply philosophical address to gathered Hollywood dignitaries.
Like many recent dramas, Trumbo strikes a delicate balance between portraying the 1950s in exacting and delicate detail, while also excoriating the period for its hypocrisy and repressiveness. The film does not allow for a great deal of ambiguity, and rightly so, as the fanatical overreach of HUAC destroyed the lives and careers of not just the Hollywood Ten, but also numerous other Hollywood professionals who saw their livelihoods demolished on even the faintest suspicion of Communist sympathies.
There are, fortunately, a few moments that undercut (or at least dilute) the more straightforwardly hagiographic tendencies. As the third act progresses, it becomes clear that Trumbo is not quite the loving and affectionate family man that everyone has believed. While the father/daughter film trope is a teensy bit on the lazy side, Cranston does a grand job bringing out the prickly and sometimes sanctimonious traits for which Trumbo became somewhat infamous.
While Trumbo is the driving narrative center of the film, a few other characters gain nuanced treatment. Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) emerges as a conflicted and somewhat tragic figure, an actor desperate to salvage his reputation and maintain his livelihood. Though we are not invited to condone his betrayal of his friends (including Trumbo), the film clearly wants us to sympathize with him. He makes the best decision in a terrible situation, and while the relationship between him and Trumbo never returns to its
While perhaps not nuanced, per se, Helen Mirren does an absolutely marvelous job bringing Hedda Hopper to life. Mirren has always excelled at playing powerful women willing to do whatever it takes to defend their principles, and say what you will about Hopper’s red-baiting, she was a woman stalwart in her (misguided) principles. While the film may give her too much credit for the imposition of the blacklist, she does have some memorable (and vicious) lines, as when she reveals her racism by reminding Louis B. Mayer of his scrupulously disguised Jewish identity, as a trait he shares with many of his fellow studio heads.
Several of the other players deserve accolades. John Goodman is splendidly vulgar as Frank King, Trumbo’s employer (a role that Goodman has honed to perfection). Diane Lane, while conveying the long-suffering yet fiercely independent Cleo Trumbo, is rather underused, while Elle Fanning hits an unfortunately strident note as Trumbo’s increasingly resentful daughter Nikola. And poor Stephen Root is almost invisible as Frank’s brother Hymie, while Dean O’Gorman captures the look of Kirk Douglas, without quite mastering the older actor’s unique verbal mannerisms.
Trumbo is one of those films that the Hollywood film industry loves to periodically produce. By granting Trumbo the last word, it allows the industry to atone for the sins of the past and to lionize those figures who it once did everything its power to destroy. The film holds valuable lessons for us in the present, as we find ourselves as a nation confronted with a not-dissimilar atmosphere of paranoia. Like Trumbo, we should all be very wary of those who would mobilize our fears and make us give up those things that we value most about America.