Surviving the Blacklist: Trumbo

By Pamela Zoslov

This fall, Hollywood is offering a crash course in modern sociopolitical history. The curriculum includes the women’s suffrage movement in England (Suffragette), American tinkering with overseas elections (Our Brand Is Crisis), the human cost of techno-capitalism (Steve Jobs), press coverage of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal (Spotlight) and the Bush-Kerry election (Truth), and the story of embattled whistleblower Edward Snowden (the forthcoming Snowden).

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But for pure entertainment value, it will be hard to surpass Trumbo, the zesty dramatization of the struggles of celebrated Hollywood screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo, who was imprisoned and blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. While blacklisted, Trumbo, who had been one of Hollywood’s highest-paid writers, won two Academy Awards for screenplays written under other names.

The movie is a wonder. It avoids, for the most part, extreme caricature; it’s relatively accurate historically; and it was directed by Jay Roach, previously known for broad comedies (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, ). Who knew Roach had this in him? Same goes for screenwriter John McNamara, who adapted Bruce Cook’s book, Trumbo. McNamara is a prolific TV writer (Lois & Clark, The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr.).

Granted, there are some broad bits, and some characterizations are a little over the top — I’m thinking of Helen Mirren’s caustic and imperious Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist, calling Louis B. Mayer a “kike” — but oh, it’s so enjoyable. We even get John Goodman as Frank King, head of the King Brothers B-movie studio, wielding a baseball bat at a government official who presumes to threaten him. (Point of trivia: this is the third time Goodman has played the head of a sleazy movie studio.) This film is that rarest of all phenomena — a Hollywood treatment of historic events, and of Hollywood, that works fairly well on all levels — writing, acting, editing, design, music. It has the verve of a Coen Brothers romp, but without the sardonicism.

The sun around which the movie’s planets spin is Bryan Cranston, the Breaking Bad star. The craggy-faced Cranston plays Trumbo with a heartiness befitting its subject, even if his vocal style sounds a little more Clark Gable than Dalton Trumbo. This is an energetic, full-throated performance certain to be nominated for all the awards. Read More