Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote two Oscar-winning screenplays in the 1950s. When the awards were given, though, neither went to Trumbo, and wouldn’t for decades afterwards – because Trumbo wasn’t listed as the writer of The Brave One or Roman Holiday. At the time, Trumbo was a member of the Hollywood Ten, a group blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee about Communist sympathizers. Beyond not being credited for his own work, Trumbo was imprisoned for 11 months due to his refusal to testify. The events surrounding Trumbo’s fall and eventual re-ascension in Hollywood serve as the basis for Trumbo.
In 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He was also among the most active Socialist activists working in Hollywood. Among other hot-button topics, he fought for unionization for film crews, getting other members of Hollywood’s creative community with high profiles to join these causes. But with World War II becoming a part of the past, a former American \ wartime ally became the nation’s biggest enemy. Soviet Communism was lumped in with socialism, and prominent figures pushed for Hollywood to name those suspected of being Soviet sympathizers or even spies. When Trumbo and nine other screenwriters and directors refused to answer questions to HUAC, they were cited for contempt of Congress and placed on a blacklist, which kept those listed from being hired at any major studio.
After serving a prison sentence, Trumbo returned home and began looking for work. He eventually found a place churning out screenplays for schlocky film producers, while occasionally producing screenplays aimed for the studios where he once worked. In order to get the screenplays through, though, he worked with writing friends who weren’t on the blacklist who agreed to submit his materials in their names, or he used a pen name. It wouldn’t be until 1960, with the one-two punch of Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas publicly acknowledging Trumbo as the writer of Exodus and Spartacus, respectively, that the blacklist would officially come to a close.
Trumbo’s story is certainly an important one, and as of this writing, it’s one that’s also surprisingly relevant to current events. The film doesn’t always get its bearings right on what parts of Trumbo’s life during this 13-year stretch are important, though. Though the film doesn’t gloss over the HUAC hearings or Trumbo’s time in prison, it does spend an inordinate amount of time on Trumbo’s home life. A large part of it is fascinating, particularly as Trumbo spirals out of being a loving father and husband into a self-obsessed maniac during some of the low parts of his blacklist time. But the film tries to have other figures – even antagonists like Hedda Hopper – get bits of screentime away from Trumbo, and thanks to scene-stealing performances from the likes of Helen Mirren, it creates a desire for more of those scenes.
Fortunately, Trumbo has a strong cast behind it. Cranston manages to effectively sell Trumbo at his highs and lows, even when Trumbo is given clunky monologues espousing his beliefs. Diane Lane and Elle Fanning help keep his home life interesting as wife Cleo and daughter Nikola. And while the characters are thinly drawn, a strong supporting cast manages to save the film’s supporting characters. Mirren chews the scenery as Hopper, Michael Stuhlbarg gives an effective performance as Edward G. Robinson, and John Goodman and Stephen Root prove they should be paired together again immediately as schlock producers Frank and Hymie King.
That cast isn’t enough to pull Trumbo out of feeling like a made-for-TV take on its subject. Its political views will resonate with sympathizers, without attempting to effectively reach beyond that group. There’s a clunkiness to the way the film is plotted, and the actors help save some clichéd lines. Given the profession of the subject, maybe some further refinements should have been considered.