Film Review | Trumbo

The Hollywood blacklist is a distressing period in the history of American entertainment – thankfully, Jay Roach's often hilarious biopic of one of its key martrys makes for truly satisfying viewing, as powered by yet another great performance courtesy of Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston

Poison pen: Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston play rivals in this satisfying Hollywood blacklist comedy-drama
Poison pen: Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston play rivals in this satisfying Hollywood blacklist comedy-drama


Censorship is a highly irrational beast. If anyone were to pick up a copy of David J. Skal’s The Monster Show (1995) – as I have, for reasons only tangentially unrelated to this review – they would likely be baffled, amused and even a little bit depressed at how horror cinema in particular – whose ascent Skal charts in his cult-favourite tome – drew some fairly crazy reactions from the authorities back in the day.

As Hollywood became more and more of a cultural force to be reckoned with, the censors grew more and more nervous, working in tandem with the powers-that-be and concerned ‘interest groups’ to suppress everything in pop culture that gave vent to any form of anxiety and discomfort.

Of course, the arrival of the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein on the scene make for obvious targets and/or scapegoats for the ‘degenerating’ nature of popular culture – monsters may address a complex mix of things, but they address it all on the surface.

A more insidious – but ultimately far more damaging – form of authoritarian imposition came in the form of the Hollywood Blacklist: a post-war hysteria which led to a witch hunt against communist sympathisers within the Hollywood ranks. Dalton Trumbo – originally uncredited screenwriter for the likes of Roman Holiday and Spartacus – was arguably the most obvious martyr in this unfortunate chapter of Hollywood history. The year 1947 finds Trumbo as a proud member of Communist Party of the USA while also lapping up the spoils of being one of the industry’s highest-paying screenwriters.

Blissfully comfortable with this apparently paradoxical ideological stance, Trumbo openly seeks to convert his fellow Hollywood colleagues to the communist cause – but he has to go through right-wing firebrands like John Wayne (David James Elliott) first, along with the poison-pen columnist and aggressive patriot Hedda Hooper (Helen Mirren).

When the authorities decide to clamp down on Trumbo and his comrades – among them screenwriters Arlen Hird (a composite character played by comedian Louis C.K.) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) as well as actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) – they place their faith in the fact that a liberal majority in the Senate will keep them out of jail.

But with this majority petering out at a crucial stage – and with Trumbo and his associates refusing to play the game during the seatings – our protagonist does end up facing the music.

Freed after ten months, Trumbo is adamant to keep fighting the good fight… but he can’t work under his name. Finding sneaky ways to game the system, the social segregation brought about by his public imprisonment places a toll on the Trumbo family, with his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three children also suffering the burden of the blacklist.

Working off a script by John McNamara (in turn based on a non-fictional account of Trumbo’s life by Bruce Cook), director Jay Roach certainly mines a deeper vein than some of the broader comedy on his CV – among them the Austin Powers movies – but still retains a light, zippy touch. This is a comedy first and foremost, albeit one with a political bite at its edges.

Breaking Bad alumnus Bryan Cranston continues his cinematic winning streak – his turn as the mercurial Trumbo won him an Oscar nomination earlier this year – and as is often the case, it’s just a pleasure to see him go at it. While there have been complaints that his communist leanings are actually more sinister than the socially egalitarian picture presented by Roach, he works thoroughly as a protagonist in what is ultimately a well-rounded crowd-pleaser that leavens its necessary schmaltz with some inspired wit.

Belly laughs are in evidence too, though, largely thanks to the always-lovable John Goodman, who here steps in to portray a larger-than-life caricature of B-movie studio boss Frank King, who secretly ends up hiring Trumbo and his fellow blacklistees to crank out workable scripts for admittedly crappy genre pictures in record speed.

Goodman excels in a climactic scene where a stooge for the House of Un-American Activities threatens to expose his undercover-commie-screenwriter cottage industry. As is probably the case for most of the film’s highlights, the ensuing melee probably didn’t happen – or at least, it didn’t happen as presented. But boy, is it satisfying. 

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