“Trumbo” is a rarity: A Hollywood movie with a heroic lead identified as a Communist. Dalton Trumbo was reputedly postwar Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter, with such scripts under his belt as 1940’s class conscious “Kitty Foyle,” for which Ginger Rogers won a Best Actress Oscar, and World War II morale boosters like “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” starring Spencer Tracy. But to keep this prestigious, well-paying job, as Dalton is warned by MGM’s mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), he best avoid politics.
But while Trumbo (powerfully portrayed by “Breaking Bad” Emmy and Golden Globe winner Bryan Cranston) does become Hollywood royalty, Dalton’s origins lie in far humbler places. Born in Colorado, and working for years in a L.A. bakery, Trumbo was involved in America’s unionization wave during the New Deal, including in Tinseltown, where he supported the Writers Guild of America. In 1939 Trumbo wrote the pacifist novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” and in 1943, while the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were anti-Nazi Allies, he joined the Communist Party.
After the WWII alliance between Washington and Moscow collapsed and the Cold War began, as “Trumbo” vividly depicts, La-La-Land leftists were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about alleged film propaganda.
Among witnesses HUAC summoned was Trumbo. To continue making movies all he had to do was to confess to the grand inquisitors (which included Richard Nixon) that he’d joined the Party and to name Communists, leftists and union supporters in the movie colony. But like other members of the Hollywood Ten, in 1947 a defiant Trumbo refused to cooperate, was fined for contempt of Congress, and sentenced to prison.
The Hollywood Blacklist banned some 300 Tinseltown talents from working for the studios. However, many pariah picture writers used pseudonyms or fronts (impostors posing as scripts’ authors) to get their screenplays produced. After his release from prison, Trumbo ingenuously taps into this black market, Due to the prohibition against them, blacklisted screenwriters worked for cut rates. Compensating for lowered salaries, Trumbo and his colleagues cranked scripts out, which led him - already a big drinker - to develop a Benzedrine dependency.
The biopic shows how Trumbo helped break the Blacklist, by winning two Academy Awards (under names other than his) and by finally receiving screen credits under his own name in 1960 on both Kirk Douglas’ “Spartacus” and Otto Preminger’s “Exodus.”
Well-directed by Roach, “Trumbo” is arguably the best Blacklist feature yet, boasting a stellar cast: Helen Mirren portrays gossip columnist/witch-hunter Hedda Hopper, Diane Lane is wife Cleo Trumbo, Elle Fanning is daughter Nikola Trumbo, John Goodman is producer Frank King, Michael Stuhlbarg is Edward G. Robinson, comic Louis C.K. as a blacklisted writer and David James Elliott is Cold Warrior John Wayne.
In a key scene Trumbo confronts “the Duke,” exposing that although Wayne often portrayed soldiers, he sat WWII out. The self-styled super-patriot never wore his country’s uniform (except in the safety of a Hollywood set).
“Trumbo” definitively establishes Dalton as, a Communist, and unlike most contemporary reports about socialists and Communists actually tries defining the terms. After a redbaiting incident daughter Nikola Trumbo (played as a child by Madison Wolfe) asks her dad if he is a Communist, and if she is one, too, plus, what does that mean? Trumbo explains simply: “Sharing.”
Dalton Trumbo is probably the most positive American Communist character in Hollywood since Warren Beatty’s John Reed in 1981’s “Reds.” Though the screenwriter is not without faults. In addition to Trumbo’s substance abuse, he is a flawed father; his often-tense relationship with Nikola (Elle Fanning plays her as a teenager) is an important part of the drama.
After the Film Independent Forum screening in Hollywood, Roach compared HUAC to the House Select Committee that grilled Hillary Clinton shortly before “Trumbo’s” premiere, quipping it gave his movie a PR bonanza and “Benghazi bump.” Roach described Trumbo as “theatrical.”
“He cared about communicating ideas,” said Roach. “He was a humanist and earthy person. Although wealthy, he was committed to social justice. He showed the Blacklist’s absurdity by writing—by using his superpower.”
Recent threats by law enforcement associations to boycott Quentin Tarantino’s movies after his anti-police brutality comments at an Oct. 24 rally, remind us that “Trumbo” remains relevant. The blacklisters are still among us. The movie opens Nov. 6.
Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”