Dalton Trumbo is back! The United States' best screen writer, black-listed and imprisoned during the 1950s McCarthy era witch hunts, has returned full of life, politics and attitude in Jay Roach's smart, funny unrepentant film "Trumbo."
Trumbo clearly had many lives. In 1939, he won the National Book Award for his anti-war novel "Johnny Got His Gun," the story of Joe Bonham, a young soldier who lost his arms, legs and his face to an artillery shell explosion. Unable to kill himself, Bonham wanted to serve as an example of the horrors of war. Bonham enabled Trumbo to do just this, as the book, read in schools around the world, has been twice made into movies and performed as well in theaters internationally.
Beyond his novels and many short stories, Dalton Trumbo was most successful as one of Hollywood's most sought after and highly paid screen writers. Prior to the end of World War II, Trumbo scripted a variety of films including the popular war epic "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944) and "Kitty Foyle," (1940) for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
When World War II Allies the United States and the Soviet Union fell out, Trumbo fell out of step. Like thousands of Americans looking to the Soviet Union for models of social change, he had joined the Communist Party. His continued opposition to fascism, support of workers rights and advocacy for racial integration, earned him a fact finding visit from the FBI. The House Un-American Activities Committee, formed to investigate fascism in 1938, subpoenaed Trumbo among a group of ten influential Hollywood film writers and directors, fearful they were too sympathetic to Soviet communism.
Although they had broken no laws, the Committee cited this Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress when they refused to testify. Based on suspected political beliefs, these and other Hollywood writers, directors and actors were denied work. Some of the most talented and creative artists were systematically locked out. Without income, they lost their homes. Families were broken and lives shattered.
Trumbo served a year in federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky despite having broken no laws. He was barred from work and lost the family farm. Undaunted, he organized other writers to work under pseudonyms for fledgling film makers like Frank King (portrayed in the film by John Goodman). Please don't make the film too good, King warned Trumbo, we're just a small studio doing second rate features! Trumbo generally complied, as the B film productions kept many of the Blacklistees from starving.
But writing under the front of his friend Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), Trumbo was able to pen the Academy Award winning script for the Gregory Peck - Audrey Hepburn classic "Roman Holiday" (1953). Under the name of the King brothers' nephew Robert Rich, Trumbo won another Academy Award for "The Brave One" (1956).
The big break for Trumbo and in the Blacklist came with Kirk Douglas' hiring him to work on Stanley Kubrick's blockbuster "Spartacus," a film about another courageous underdog fighting for his rights. In a moment where Hollywood legends intersect, Douglas is asked why he would hire and publicly credit political dissident Dalton Trumbo, Douglas smiles and replies . . . "I am Spartacus!" In another act of principle, newly elected President John F. Kennedy walked through the American Legion picket line to see the film's premiere.
Bryan Cranston sparkles as Trumbo, witty and talented, unflinching in his support of the working class and his espousal of communist ideals, loyal to his comrades like Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), exacting of his stoic wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and his rebellious daughter Niki (Elle Fanning). Helen Mirren provides loathsome texture as formidable Right Wing gossip journalist Hedda Hopper.
Multiple Emmy Award winning Director-Producer Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, The Campaign) has crafted a thoughtful and highly entertaining re-telling of these scoundrel times. Still, one could argue that Trumbo is being blacklisted again, as the film despite high per theater earnings, has only opened to twenty theaters across the country. Nevertheless, Roach closes with Trumbo's much too generous description of the times:
"There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts." (New York Times, September 11, 2007).