Dalton Trumbo was a widely-renowned screenwriter who’s name is big in Hollywood, but most likely not a household name – although I am positive you have seen his films. From Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and The Brave One – his films have gone down in history in more ways than one. He won 2 Oscars for his screenplays…neither award displayed his name. In the late 1940s going into the 50s, screenwriters were targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for either being registered communists or having communist sympathies (although often neither were true of the people they were prosecuting). Dalton Trumbo was one of the few they were actually right about and, while he was not a Soviet spy of any kind, was targeted by HUAC as a communist and therefore blacklisted by the Hollywood studios. Nobody would work with him and no studio would hire him. The whole story of HUAC is a fascinating one, although it has yet to be better portrayed on film than in George Clooney’s masterpiece Good Night, and Good Luck. You get a few glimpses of how truly self-serving and outright paranoid they were in the first third of this film, and this is even pre-McCarthy.
Director Jay Roach does a fantastic job here early on to really bring you into this world and how difficult it must have been for anyone in the movie business to work under the pressure of not being subpoenaed by the committee. Unless you were John Wayne or Ronald Reagan, you were most likely going to be under a microscope during the early years of the Cold War. Roach gets a good handle on the paranoia and stress this small group of actors/screenwriters really went through, notably Edward G. Robinson – who is played here by Michael Stuhlbarg. While the actor certainly doesn’t look the part in the earlier years of Robinson’s career, he is almost a spitting image of him late in the film. The acting here is really where the film excels. Bryan Cranston is tremendous as the eccentric Dalton Trumbo, giving him a sincerity and fragility that only an actor like Cranston could portray so well. You want to like the guy right off the bat, being a registered communist or not. He believes what he believes and is fighting for the right he is given from the first amendment. Helen Mirren is great here as well and really nails a couple of key scenes, but her character seems to be mostly background. John Goodman and Stephen Root also show up here as the King brothers, who owned a trashy film studio, and are a real highlight of the film. Both Goodman and Root give the film a good punch of personality and humor, something both actors really thrive at. Dean O’Gorman also shows up here as Kirk Douglas and David James Elliott (JAG) steps into the shoes of John Wayne. It’s quite a feat for the actors to play such icons of Hollywood while each of them were really in their prime, but both O’Gorman and Elliott are fantastic.
I feel there really hasn’t been much of the HUAC or the numerous blacklists portrayed on film and it’s nice to see that being delved into a little deeper here. While the film is entertaining and somewhat educational as far as Trumbo’s struggles during this time period, it has some real pacing issues. For a film about a great screenwriter, you would expect the script to be a bit punchier and a bit more memorable. It was a good watch while I was in the theater and the cast was spectacular, but unfortunately it did not stick with me long after it was over. It also did not help the fact that the film ends in almost the exact same way as Good Night, and Good Luck. The two films have quite a few similarities, and this one does not hold up in comparison. Overall, Trumbo’s story is a fascinating one and deserves to be heard, it just has so much potential that this film ultimately doesn’t live up to.
Runtime: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Rating: R for language including some sexual references