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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Trumbo | Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, David James Elliot, Dean O'Gorman, Christian Berkel, Louis C.K. | Review

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Jacqueline  Monahan

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Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
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Trumbo | Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, David James Elliot, Dean O'Gorman, Christian Berkel, Louis C.K. | Review

“It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims,” declared Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) in a 1970 speech, referring to the “blacklist”, the offshoot of an ugly and shameful era of American history in which those suspected of having ties to the Communist party suffered fines and imprisonment in addition to being denied employment within the motion picture industry.

That shameful era started in 1947 and proliferated throughout the 1950’s, causing screenwriters, directors, producers, and other film industry  professionals who were or had been members of the Communist Party to become targets, then victims, of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) headed by Wisconsin senator Joseph R. McCarthy.  

Historically referred to as a witch-hunt, hundreds were deprived of their livelihoods for refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs or incriminate friends. Some testified to save their own careers, as did Trumbo pal Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg); others upheld their conscience by withholding their words, and were ruined.

There were famous outspoken HUAC supporters as well.  Chatty, hatty, and so very catty, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) flag-waving non-veteran John Wayne (David James Elliot) and former President Ronald Reagan (in actual footage) come across as reactionary finger-pointers riding exceptionally high horses.

Trumbo was arguably the most prominent member of the most prominent group affected by HUAC.  Known as the Hollywood Ten, the group also included playwright Ring Lardner, Jr., screenwriter Alvah Bessie, director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Lester Cole, writer John Howard Lawson, screenwriter Albert Maltz, screenwriter Samuel Ornitz, screenwriter/producer Adrian Scott, and director Edward Dmytryk.  For refusing to cooperate, they were sentenced to six months to a year (Trumbo served 10 months) in prison for contempt of Congress, were summarily fired from projects and blacklisted from the motion picture industry.

Trumbo, the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, was forced to use pseudonyms like the fictional Robert Rich, who won the 1956 Academy Award for “The Brave One”.  The very real Ian McClellan Hunter received the 1954 Academy Award for “Roman Holiday” although he was fronting for Trumbo, who made sure the work (and paychecks) never stopped for him and his screenwriter friends by procuring script writing and revision work from B-movie producer Frank King (John Goodman).

When King asks “You don’t want your name on the script?”  Trumbo replies, “No, YOU don’t want my name on the script.”

The clever, erudite, and eloquent Trumbo frequently engaged in a battle of wits with unarmed opponents, which made him a maddening mouthpiece for the 1st Amendment.  A force of nature –confident, principled, mostly kind, and shrewd enough to appreciate his success, Trumbo was never without his cigarette holder and rarely without a glass of scotch, coaxing words out of an old manual typewriter with fury and urgency.

Loyal wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and best friend Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) a composite mouthpiece of a character, which means his traits and feelings comprised those of a host of others) lend moral support to the man who churned out scripts with relentless focus and energy.

Actor Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) emerge as Trumbo champions, boldly assigning credit to Trumbo for his work on scripts for Spartacus and Exodus respectively in 1960, signaling the long overdue death knell of the blacklist

Director Jay Roach (Borat, Meet the Parents) summons up an era in cars, clothes, sets, and attitudes, combining injustice and intolerance with a splash of humor to make the Trumbo cocktail a pungent swallow.  Adapted from the 1977 book by Bruce Cook, screenwriter John McNamara fills the charming, piquant Trumbo mouth as impressively as Cranston works it. Archival footage winds through the story seamlessly.

A transcendent performance by Cranston as the almost maddeningly decent, intelligent, and logical Trumbo as well as the scene shredding Mirren and the serene “good woman behind the man” Lane are just some of the highlights of a splendid cast. O’Gorman and Berkel have fun with their nearly over-the-top-performances.

At a time when Congress allowed Hollywood to become the exclusionary bullies on the playground, Dalton Trumbo found a way to keep playing.

Note* Trumbo also authored the 1935 novel, Eclipse, and perhaps his most famous work, the 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, which was made into a 1971 film that he directed.

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