Most people under a certain age will not know that much about the dark period in America’s history when thousands of people were blacklisted for having left-wing sympathies, or because they had been members of the Communist Party. Investigated by the government, vilified in the press, and even imprisoned, many suffered as a result of what was later know as McCarthyism, named after a senator who led the hearings. Careers were ruined, marriages broken, and homes and families lost.
One famous Hollywood screenwriter was a part of all this, and his name was Dalton Trumbo. His books and screenwriting credits are enough to fill the entire post, but you will know some of his work, even if you have not heard his name before. ‘Spartacus’, ‘Exodus’, Papillon’, ‘Roman Holiday’, to name just a few. At one time, he was the highest paid writer in Hollywood, living a luxury lifestyle on a ranch with its own lake, and enjoying a loving marriage with a devoted wife and children. But he was also an unlikely Communist, having served as a war correspondent in WW2, and been an active supporter of strikes in the film industry.
The film opens with him at the peak of his success. Best friends with Edward G. Robinson, and part of the Hollywood elite. He is about to sign a contract with MGM, and life could not be any better. But there are rumours that he and nine other writers are about to be summoned to appear at the House Un-American Affairs Committee, where they will be asked to confess to being Communists, and supply other names to the investigators. Trumbo and some of the others decide to fight back, and make a stand. They become known as ‘The Hollywood Ten’.
This is a fine drama, heavily based on real events, and the life of Dalton Trumbo. He is played by Bryan Cranston, in a bravura performance where he is almost never off screen. Trumbo is portrayed realistically, with his obsessive desire to work affecting his family, and his outspoken stubbornness causing rifts with his best friends and colleagues. The scenes during the hearings are filmed as if to make them look like authentic documentary footage, and attention to period detail is first class.
The supporting cast is no less excellent, with Diane Lane as his wife, and many others playing the parts of real people. Those include Helen Mirren as the bitchy gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, seeking to ruin Trumbo, and Michael Stuhlbarg with a very sensitive portrayal of a troubled Edward G. Robinson. Elle Fanning shines as Trumbo’s activist teenage daughter, and Dean O’Gorman is a very convincing Kirk Douglas. Even John Goodman shows up, enjoying himself playing John Goodman. (Actually he is Frank King, but still Goodman)
You don’t really have to be a fan of old films to enjoy this, or have that much interest in the history of the blacklist in the 1940s. It works perfectly as a compelling drama about a group of people who decided to stand up and be counted.
Here’s a trailer.