Trumbo: a moving dramatisation of a society’s delusions, paranoia and persecutions

Jay Roach, “Trumbo” (2015)

This biopic of Hollywood screen-writer Dalton Trumbo’s career from the late 1940s to 1970 is a vehicle for a survey of the anti-Communist witch-hunts conducted by US senator Joseph McCarthy and others, and of the effects it had on Hollywood and the lives of people employed by the movie industry. As a snapshot of how one individual’s life and career were nearly destroyed by the paranoia and fear created, maintained and manipulated by the US government, its agencies and people in or connected to Hollywood, “Trumbo” is a good and often very moving portrayal of the effects of repression in a society supposedly founded on Enlightenment values of individual freedoms and rights, and democracy.

Played by Bryan Cranston, Dalton Trumbo is the most well-known of the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of scriptwriters and directors brought before the House Committee of Un-American Activities of US Congress, interrogated and found guilty of contempt or for promoting Communist propaganda. Trumbo is blacklisted and sent to prison for 11 months. When he is released in 1951, his real problems begin: he is forced to sell his ranch and move to a city neighbourhood where his neighbour spies on him and reports various goings-on at his house (though Trumbo and viewers are not to know this until quite late in the film). As his name is still on the blacklist, the writer¬†is forced to find work cranking out B-grade movie scripts under various pseudonyms to King Productions, run by the formidable Frank King (John Goodman), which affects his marriage to Cleo (Diane Lane) and his relationships with his children, especially his oldest child Nicola (Elle Fanning). Although a few of Trumbo’s scripts win Academy Awards, Trumbo is unable to collect the Oscars he deserves.

Over time, as the hunt for Reds under people’s beds falls in on itself and Senator McCarthy is discredited, the atmosphere of fear begins to thaw out and people start to reach out to Trumbo: Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) hires him to write the script for “Spartacus” and Otto Preminger contacts him for typing duties on “Exodus”. When both films are released in cinemas in 1960, their credits include Trumbo’s name. In 1961, new US President John F Kennedy goes to see “Spartacus” in a blaze of publicity and this in itself signals that Trumbo is no longer blacklisted.

While Cranston’s performance as Trumbo is the most outstanding feature of the film, the film does shoehorn his character into a heroic figure fighting for his and others’ First Amendment rights, enduring prison life and then struggling to make a living and eventually regaining his rightful place in the public limelight. By necessity perhaps, the film takes some liberties in depicting certain events and incidents that occur during the period of Trumbo’s blacklisting and ignoring others to reinforce this heroic view of Trumbo. The character of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) is played up into a vicious and nasty witch in fancy clothes. Trumbo’s brief arguments with the fictional character Arlen Hird (Louis CK) on issues of an individual’s place in society, whether people should challenge and change the system, or if working with the system when one is down and out is morally acceptable, don’t amount to very much even though they deal with aspects of the themes that drive the film’s narrative. In this narrative, Lane’s role as Trumbo’s long-suffering faithful wife is very limited and stereotyped and Fanning equally has little to do as Nicola whose transformation into a teenage activist should have merited sub-plot treatment.

Where the film does excel is in painting through scenes featuring minor characters a society drunk on and deluded by its own propaganda about the dangers of Communism and whipping itself into endless vicious circles of fear, paranoia and more propaganda. Priceless scenes include Hedda Hopper threatening a movie studio mogul by revealing his Russian Jewish origins and background in her gossip columns if he does not sack Trumbo; and Frank King throwing out a movie executive who tries to pressure him into sacking Trumbo when his employment of the struggling writer becomes the worst kept secret in Hollywood. True, in the 1950s Communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, China and other parts of the world could be brutal and repressive but what Trumbo and his fellow Hollywood Ten comrades argued and fought for was Americans’ right to exercise their First Amendment rights, this is no more and no less than what we would expect in a normal functioning Western liberal democracy. There is a real sense of a society brainwashed by fears more imagined than real, and of individuals made to suffer for crimes they did not commit. The most tragic scenes are those that involve Hollywood actor Edward G Robinson (Michael Stahlberg) who is under pressure to denounce Trumbo to save his career and who eventually caves in to the authorities but feels tremendous guilt afterwards in betraying his friend.

For all that the film does well, there is one major problem which is a consequence of its being a fictional drama of one particular real-life character, and that is that viewers get no sense of how US society changes through the 1950s to the extent where Douglas and Preminger feel brave enough to reach out and rescue Trumbo, and help revive his career. There is nothing to say about how Senator McCarthy was eventually discredited by his own actions and the suspicions of his fellow politicians about the anti-Communist hysteria he helped to stir. If there are real heroes in “Trumbo”, they are Douglas and Preminger who surely risked their own careers by hiring him but we know nothing of any risks they took or any sacrifices they made on his behalf.

Films like “Trumbo” and “Spotlight” might represent a small and incipient trend by relatively unknown or second-tier directors in Hollywood in criticising aspects of modern US politics and society via dramatisations of significant historical events that turn on issues of individuals’ freedom and rights, and the abuses of power by governments or major institutions. What comes of this trend, whether it proves to be the renaissance of Hollywood or not, should be worth following.