Trumbo movie review: liberal Hollywood? ha!

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Trumbo green light

Marvelously balances the silly and the solemn. There’s almost a whiff of the Coen-esque in its slick sharpness, in its whistling past the graveyard.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Trumbo for its representation of girls and women.

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Thu, Nov 19, 2015 5:31pm

Is there any more subtlety to it than “authoritarians bad, liberal Hollywood good”? Because it seems to me that without flipping the situation around a little and having characters whose views don’t match their personal moral portrayal, as it might be an unpleasant ex-Communist or a sympathetic government person, the situation is reduced to exactly the same “them bad, us good” thinking that caused the problem in the first place.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Thu, Nov 19, 2015 11:13pm

The movie is not like this. And “Hollywood” as an industry is most definitely NOT liberal here. If it were, it would never have allowed such a blacklist in the first place.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Nov 19, 2015 11:35pm

Hurrah! Glad to see it’s not as simplistic as the trailer pictured it.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
reply to  RogerBW
Tue, Nov 24, 2015 8:27pm

Be careful what you wish for, RogerBW.

There are alternative versions of the Dalton Trumbo story.

For example, here:

and here:

YMMV, of course.

Though the more I research this subject, the more I suspect I’d find this movie to be funny for reasons that neither the director nor the screenwriter intended.

Mon, Nov 23, 2015 7:41pm

I read another review of this (over at Hullabaloo) where the reviewer pointed out the similarities between John Goodman’s character here and his character in the (IMO awesome!) film Matinee.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Kathy_A
Tue, Nov 24, 2015 9:45pm


Sun, Aug 07, 2016 2:19am

Even the socialists were appalled by Trumbo — even Eleanor Roosevelt had turned against Stalin by 1947.
Not Trumbo. He and his fellow Communist martyrs were apologists for two of the greatest mass murderers in history.
Trumbo and his ilk weren’t minding their own business while quietly holding abhorrent “political views.” The reason studio heads, writers, directors and actors came together to purge the communists from Hollywood was that, by the mid-1940s, Trumbo and his crowd were exercising major influence over the Screen Writers Guild, the Screen Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Story Analysts Guild and the Conference of Studio Unions.
They were using their immense power to promote Soviet writers, as well as to blacklist writers who were anti-Soviet, such as Eugene Lyons. Hollywood reds pioneered the practice of blacklisting, then cried bloody murder when it was applied to them.
With no government prompting, mostly pogrom-fleeing, loyal American, Jewish studio heads decamped to the Waldorf-Astoria to write up the “blacklist” – or as it was actually called, the “Waldorf Conference Statement” — announcing that they would “not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods.”
Trumbo was a Comunist monster, no wonder modern Liberals celebrate him.