Entertaining if insubstantial biopic of the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten jailed for refusing to cooperate with the House of Un-American Activities and blacklisted by the movie industry for his Communist sympathies. Trumbo (played here by Bryan Cranston) defied this ban by writing under various pseudonyms. During this time he won two Oscars, for Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler) which he persuaded his friend Ian McLellan Hunter to hand in to Paramount as his own work, and The Brave One (56, Irving Rapper) which written under the name Robert Rich. The latter proved awkward when the non-existent Mr Rich didn’t show to collect his Academy Award and it became an open secret in Hollywood Trumbo was still working. Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, mercurial talents and both tough sons-of-bitches weren’t the type to be intimidated gave Trumbo a screen credit on their movies. Trumbo became legend, helped in no part by the huge success of Spartacus (60, Stanley Kubrick), a film about a man defying the might of an Empire.
The McCarthy hearings and their effects on the movie industry are such a fascinating complex period in Hollywood history this story is perhaps worthier of the long-form storytelling offered by television. Trumbo settles for the tropes of the biopic, famous people impersonating other famous people and a skilful mixture of archive footage and recreations of historical events. It does this quite well. John McNamara’s screenplay has some great lines and it helps that many of the most valuable players are as adept at drama and comedy. Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird, as the most strident Communist among the blacklisted writers, Alan Tudyk as McLellan Hunter, John Goodman and Stephen Root as B-movie producers the King Brothers, David James Elliot whose performance as John Wayne avoids caricature suggesting a man whose right-wing views are genuine and tempered by compassion for fallen colleagues, unlike Helen Mirren’s admittedly entertaining Hedda Hopper who comes across like an anti-semitic, Commie-hating Disney villain. Dean O’Gorman’s Kirk Douglas is the stand-out though and gets the film’s best line albeit one borrowed from another picture.
Trumbo described the blacklist in his WGA speech as a period when “no-one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil.” There’s a great dark drama waiting to be made about this period in American history when in defence of ‘freedom’ people were encouraged to inform on their neighbours and work colleagues in a manner not dissimilar to those living under Communist rule. Lives and careers were destroyed and while Trumbo doesn’t downplay the ruin brought about by the McCarthy hearings tonally the film is as breezy as one of Roach’s Austin Powers movies and as pleased with itself as his HBO movie Recount (2008).