Reeling it in: ‘Trumbo’ shines light on dark period in Hollywood

“Trumbo”

Bleecker Street Media

2 hours, 4 minutes

Gearing up for the Academy Awards this weekend, I sought out one of those smaller, actor driven films that you always say you’d like to see, but then no one ever gets around to renting. Naturally, they don’t come to the theaters in our market. Nominated for Best Actor, Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo in the film simply titled “Trumbo.”

For anyone interested in film history, this is definitely one to check out.

I picked this, not only because the trailer looked interesting, but because Dalton Trumbo is one of those names I’d always heard reference to, but never actually knew anything about. It just goes to show how difficult it is to get known as a screenwriter. This guy was one of the most celebrated writers in Hollywood history, and then became famous for fighting the blacklist and essentially ending a destructive and xenophobic practice, and I still couldn’t have told you anything about him. Dalton Trumbo wrote, among other things, “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus,” “Exodus,” “The Deerslayer,” and 65 other films. The man was larger than life and tweaked the conservative wing of the Hollywood elite during the early days of the cold war by being an avowed communist.

As the film’s opening crawl makes clear, communism was somewhat popular in the United States prior to the 1950s, and especially so among artists and creative types. The film makes no assertions as to Trumbo’s feelings about the Soviet Union — Cranston plays him as a philosophical communist, one who’s for unions and worker reform rather than a godless red menace. The latter, however, is how anyone with even the vaguest connection to communism was seen in those days, and many were dragged in front of Congress and, in a process eerily reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, were made to name names of known commies as a way of taking pressure off themselves.

The film follows Trumbo and his cohorts from the first rumblings of the blacklist in the early 1950s through to its effective end in the early 1960s. Cranston is great as the bombastic, sardonic Trumbo. He delivers dialogue pitch perfect and comes off as a man born to the struggle. Where others in his cadre were beaten down by what they went through, Trumbo was emboldened, even starting up a cottage industry for he and other blacklisted writers to come up with quickie scripts for low-budget films, all written under pseudonyms.

I loved Cranston in the role, but “Trumbo” really shines through its ensemble cast. Louis C. K. and Alan Tudyk are great as fellow screenwriters, and John Goodman and Stephen Root are hilarious as a pair of sleazy producers who defy the blacklist. Goodman gets one of the best scenes in the movie as he runs off a spineless lackey from the studio.

Some of the most interesting performances come from those lesser-known actors playing John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger, and Edward G. Robinson. A lesser film would make the mistake of presenting these characters in big, bold strokes, maybe even using big current Hollywood stars in those roles (see “The Butler” and it’s particularly egregious Nixon impersonation by John Cusack). “Trumbo” wisely chooses to approach these as simply character roles instead of impressions. As a result, we are given hints of each of those characters’ particular eccentricities without having them pounded into us. David James Elliott’s Wayne looks good, sounds good, and is a full and real performance without a single “Waah ha!” to be heard (read that in a John Wayne accent; it’ll make sense).

I really enjoyed “Trumbo.” It’s funny, moving, and just flat out entertaining. The only downside is that the language in the film makes it next to impossible to show in school, where it would be a powerful illustration of a time when paranoia and fear drove people to make terrible choices. It would make a particularly nice companion piece to “The Crucible.”

Alas, I think a biography of “Trumbo” that restricted his speech would be just a little ironic, and we are therefore left with an R-rated film, lumped in with the likes of “Saw” and “Fifty Shades of Gray.”

Oh well, maybe a Trumbo will come along to take on the MPAA and its outdated system one day.

Grade: A

“Trumbo” is rated R for language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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