Jay Roach’s Trumbo is something of a miracle — in part because it’s from Jay Roach, a man whose directing career previously peaked with the Austin Powers movies. At the very least, there’s nothing in his filmography that suggests he’d be suitable for this. Toss in the fact that, on the surface, it bites off more than it should be able to chew by covering not just Dalton Trumbo’s (a brilliant Bryan Cranston) life and career from 1947 to 1970 but also the story of the Hollywood Ten, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the blacklist and the defeat of that same list. Does the film telescope events and simplify some things in order to do this in two hours? Does it create scenes to make its points? Of course, it does. It has to. Does it work as powerful drama all the same? Like gangbusters.
I wish it wasn’t opening the same week as Brooklyn, however. Not only does that pit two must-see movies against each other, but it lands me squarely in the position of having two “Weekly Picks” that cannot be accommodated easily (if at all) in the layout. More than that, I wish the film was simply an historical record, but it’s not — especially in a world where certain political pundits have been trying to paint a positive picture of HUAC and the blacklist. Trumbo is unfortunately as relevant today as it ever was. It almost works as allegory. The distance between one of the major architects of the blacklist, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), and modern pundits like Ann Coulter is very small. And when, in the course of the film, it’s suggested that all members of the Communist Party should be put in camps, it cuts even deeper. (It should be noted that it was not then, nor is it now, illegal to be a party member.)
A certain amount of criticism that has been leveled against the film is that it tells “us” nothing we didn’t know already. That idea — being put forth by film-savvy writers who presumably know the history — works on the faulty assumption that there is a unified “us.” There’s not. Did I learn anything new? Probably not, but I’m also 61 years old and steeped (some would say too much so) in film history, which includes this chapter. But, if I was in my 20s, 30s or even 40s and not conversant with this history, would I still say that? My guess is no. As such, I’m not on board with the argument that it tells “us” nothing new. More than that, though, it tells it in a surprisingly entertaining manner — skillfully blending outrage, bleak humor and genuinely moving scenes.
What Trumbo gives us is a portrait of the writer — in all his sometimes wrong-headed prickliness — and his circle being harassed and even imprisoned for their political belief that congress had no legal right to ask them the infamous “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” question. It also offers a trenchant behind-the-scenes look at the forces behind the witch hunt and the blacklist. As noted, some things are simplified — the idea that Kirk Douglas single-handedly broke the blacklist by crediting Trumbo as writer on Spartacus in 1960 is hardly the whole story, but it serves dramatically. Similarly, the scene where Hedda Hopper browbeats Louis B. Mayer (a staunch right-wing moralist himself) into submission by threats of bringing up the Jewish heritage (and real names) of nearly all the industry’s moguls to play on the public’s anti-Semitism may be invented, but the tone is very authentic. That sense of authenticity, I think — along with just how entertaining and important the film is — raises Trumbo to greatness. Rated R for language, including some sexual references.