Talented writers, liberal politics, power equalized and a family that adjusts to circumstances and stays united…what is not to like! Certainly,it is not Bryan Cranston or Diane Lane whose chemistry and depth of character have us wishing to know more about James Dalton Trumbo and Cleo,his loving and insightful and wise wife. Maybe the script is a tad too forgiving of gossip nickenpoop Hedda Hopper and spineless Edgar G. Robinson. Hopper seems to want to hurt people just because she can,and Helen Mirren as Hedda does a grand job all be-hatted and cruel. Edgar G. too easily can rationalize his efforts to avoid hard sacrifice and move any way the wind blows.
The era is the fifties,again, with lots of analogies to today. McCarthyism is in full swing. Many Americans feel that “our way of life” is being threatened by communism. Fear of loss and easy patriotism are taking hold. Hollywood,like America, is divided. Actual footage from the 1952 Congressional testimonies of The House of UnAmerican Activities Committee shows “The Duke” (that is John Wayne) , Robert Taylor and Ronald Reagan on the conservative wing and Kirk Douglas, Lucille Ball and Gregory Peck on the liberal .
Trumbo is called a ” swimming pool socialist” . He is maligned as a man who talks like a radical and lives like a rich man. Yet, we see the star of “Breaking Bad” serving a jail term for contempt of court as he states that criminalizing thought has never been the Ametican way. As a registered Communist, Trumbo says that someone will have to “surgically remove his conscience” to play by these House committee’s rules.
On screen, Director Jay Roach balances Trumbo’s personal and professional life beautifully. One of my favorite scenes has his young daughter, here played by Madison Wolfe, being led on her pony by her father. She has seen a stranger throw a Coke in her Daddy’s face and call him “Traitor”. She sweetly asks if she is a Communist,too. Cranston seems to delight in asking what she would do if a child at school had forgotten lunch and she had a ham and cheese sandwich. Would she charge money, heap on interest, lecture him on being more responsible etc..? When Niki says that she would share, Trumbo calls het ” You little Commie”. It is a delightful, idealistic moment. Likewise, before he is taken to prison in Ashland, Kentucky, he gives his son Chris a job: “Your mother needs to laugh at least once a day”. We see Chris succeeding in a few attempts! The humor of Trumbo softens the depressing aspects of what was done to these families. When he returns to their California home,which must now be sold,he looks at his maturing children and screams,”I’m being attacked by giants!” The audience wishes to embrace him,too.
Diane Lane is no less fun to watch her at her craft. She juggles,parents,loves, sacrifices and fights at her family’s side. I have loved her work since she was a child herself. Michael Stulhbarg,who was great in “Steve Jobs” is just as memorable as Edward G. Robinson. He knows that banks don’t fund “enemies of the state” and he is not willing to sell another Matisse to live. It is hard to identify with his pain as a “snitch”. Trumbo’s asides are always humorous. “He is trying to sell his soul,but he can’t find it”. When John Wayne (played with perfect -speech -patterned voice by David James Elliott ) testifies before the Congressional committee, Trumbo’s friend bemoans that “The Duke” is good. Trumbo retort is “Yeah, he is not acting!” The banter keeps their spirits up. McCarthyites are ” Nazis- too cheap to buy the uniforms”. Joe McCarthy is seen saying that “one Communist on the faculty is one Communist too many”.
Blacklisted writers unite under Trumbo’s lead. The Hollywood Ten, those given prison terms, make a living on their release by writing B- scripts for Frank King ( John Goodman)~scripts with titles like “The Alien and the Farmgirl”. The irony is Trumbo ‘s win of two Oscars for screenplays under the bogus author name of Robert Rich. “Roman Holiday” (1953) and “The Brave One” (1956) were the award winners, but “Spartacus” and “Exodus” were Trumbo’s ,too.
Enjoy the trivia history of President JFK crossing the picket line to see “Spartacus” and in effect signifying that “blacklisting” was over. Enjoy the brilliant Otto Preminger rankling with Trumbo. And finally, see one of the best frames of the year when film credits are reflected in the eyeglass lens of a tearful artist, who is so well lauded in the making of this film. Finally, enjoy the Jazz lyrics of “ain’t nobodies business if I do”.