For a prestige drama about one of the more shameful periods in American history (there are a lot of those), Trumbo is surprisingly funny. And thank god for that. It feels good to laugh at the idiocy surrounding the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s, if only so that you don’t have to think too much about how widespread support for the most unAmerican things — all in the name of America, naturally — has been a constant refrain in American public discourse. You have to be a special kind of sheltered not to hear such nonsense demanding to be taken seriously right at this very moment. Of course, Trumbo can’t make you forget that this crap is going on all the time, or that it isn’t dangerous; the movie is more whistling past the graveyard, because laughing makes for a fine change of pace over crying.
It’s sort of marvelous how director Jay Roach — whose prior films have all been outrageous (sometimes outright stupid) comedies such as Meet the Fockers and the Austin Powers series — balances the silly and the solemn here. There’s almost — not quite, but almost — a whiff of something Coen Brothers in its slick sharpness. (A rowdy John Goodman [The Gambler, Transformers: Age of Extinction] as a schlock film producer is Coen-esque.) As screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Bryan Cranston (Godzilla, Cold Comes the Night) finds a kind of infectious joy in the terrible and unjust situation of being “accused” of something — being a member of the Communist Party — that isn’t illegal, and being punished for standing on principle: that he’d done nothing wrong and that he wasn’t going to rat out his friends to save his own skin. Trumbo was probably the best known victim of the blacklist that saw him denied work and even sent to prison — for contempt of Congress, for refusing to cooperate in his coerced testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee — and the impact on his life and work was great: he was forced to write movies under false names, often for obscenely low pay, and even won Oscars that he could not publicly acknowledge. Yet Trumbo treats this all as a lark, a grand adventure, and above all fodder for creative inspiration. Trumbo secretly wrote the screenplay for Spartacus, for instance, while he was blacklisted, which is dramatized here via producer and star Kirk Douglas’s (Dean O’Gorman: the Hobbit series) wooing of the writer to take on the job. When you know the situation under which it was crafted, the famous “I am Spartacus” scene takes on a whole new resonance.
In a less beautifully accomplished film, saying that it treats something so grave as a lark would sound like harsh criticism: the astonishing thing about Trumbo is that its lighthearted approach is in fact deadly earnest. It buoys every single point it has to make about freedom of speech and of thought, and about having the courage of your convictions: when you have no interest in selling your soul, you have to laugh in the face of those who, in all seriousness, want to buy. The film — based on Bruce Cook’s biography of the writer, with a script by TV veteran John McNamara — mines much of its ironic humor from its depictions of fear and betrayal in an industry devoted to and driven by profit and populated by insecure people terrified of losing their wealth and their privilege, and willing to sell out to maintain their positions. (How can such an industry ever be truly liberal? the undercurrent of the movie seems to ask.) The villains here are those who pander to public fear and ignorance, such as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren [Woman in Gold, Red 2], in one of her great performances), who sees existential threats to America everywhere and lashes out with vicious cruelty in response; she could fairly be deemed the Ann Coulter of her day, and Trumbo makes her look like a tiny terrified rodent. A dangerous tiny, terrified rodent, to be sure, but one to be looked upon with pity, and to whom disdain is the best response.
Ah, but Trumbo is not wholly kind to Trumbo, either! It gives him a foil in fellow screenwriter Arlen Hird (a fictional composite of other real-life blacklisted screenwriters); the comedian Louis C.K. (American Hustle, The Invention of Lying) is astonishingly good in his most dramatic role yet as an angry straight man to Trumbo’s insouciant exuberance. Hird decries Trumbo for how he “talk[s] like a radical but… live[s] like a rich guy,” and is even more devoted to changing the world than Trumbo is. Hird paints Trumbo as the classic cliché of the Hollywood liberal, and it’s tough not to agree with Hird. But it’s also impossible not to see even classic-cliché-Hollywood-liberal Trumbo as most definitely an outsider. For all the many many movies that Hollywood loves to make about itself and its foibles, this may be the one that cuts the deepest into its own fantasies about itself.
viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival