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Podcast Episode 46: Revisiting The Hollywood Blacklist With ‘Trumbo’

New film looks to life of Blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo

Bryan Cranston stars as Blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in t...

Credit: Bleeker Street

Above: Bryan Cranston stars as Blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the new film "Trumbo."

Episode 46: Revisiting the Hollywood Blacklist with 'Trumbo'

Review of the new film "Trumbo" about the Hollywood Blacklist.

Subscribe to the Cinema Junkie podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcatcher.


Companion viewing

Hollywood on Trial” (1976)

The Front” (1976)

Guilty By Suspicion” (1991)

Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005)

In a year when I was breathlessly awaiting a new Bond film and a promising "Star Wars" installment, "Trumbo" (opening Nov. 13 throughout San Diego) was the film that in some ways I was most excited about because it combined so many elements I love.

It’s a film about Hollywood. It’s about a dark chapter in U.S. history that needs more light shined on it. It boasts Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Diane Lane. And it’s a film about ideas.

The trailer alone got me fired up about the film because it crackled with some great dialogue delivered with verve by Cranston. I know the Blacklist is a serious topic, but damn that trailer was fun because it has such energy and passion. And the film mostly met my expectations.

For anyone not familiar with the name Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Blacklist, here’s a quick rundown.

In the 1940s, Dalton Trumbo was a highly paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He was also a political activist and member of the communist party in the United States, and he vocally supported labor unions and civil rights.

Then in 1947, Trumbo — along many in Hollywood — was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee as part of its probe into communist activity in the United States. But Trumbo and nine of his colleagues refused to answer questions from Congress regarding their communist ties. They became known as the "Hollywood Ten," and were blacklisted and prevented from working in Hollywood from 1947 until the early 1960s.

Trumbo landed in federal prison and incurred the wrath of anti-communist gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played with steely self-righteousness by Helen Mirren).

But upon release from prison, Trumbo devised a scheme to ghost write screenplays in order to survive and support his family. He also penned a pair of Oscar-winning screenplays under pseudonyms. And he effectively helped end the blacklist in the 1960s with the support of actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger, who each put the screenwriter’s real name in the credits of their respective films, "Spartacus" and "Exodus."

The film "Trumbo" succeeds primarily because of Bryan Cranston’s sharp, riveting performance as the blacklisted writer. Cranston’s Trumbo is smart, savagely witty, passionately political and fiercely protective of his first amendment rights. He’s admirable for his ideals but fallible as a human being and that’s part of what makes him such a fascinating character.

I suspect that the best parts of the film are the scenes taken most directly from Trumbo’s real life.

The script is strong and Cranston anchors the film, but director Jay Roach is not particularly innovative in bringing the story to the screen. Roach is best known for his film comedies "Meet the Parents" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," which had me a little worried about him tackling a serious topic like the blacklist. But Roach has done more serious and socially conscious work on the small screen with "Recount" and "Game Change."

Roach crafts the film with a good sense of pace and appreciation of the issues at stake. This is an Oscar-bait film that knows its about something meaningful but doesn’t puff itself up with a somber sense of self-importance. Roach captures Trumbo’s spirit, wit and determination and uses that to expose a dark and ugly moment in America’s not so distant past. The film even reminds us that the House Un-American Activities Committee was operating until 1975, a mere four decades ago.

And if lives were not damaged or destroyed, the Blacklist would seem like some ridiculous comedy because it seems like any rational, intelligent person would see how absurd it all was and how offensively contrary the House Un-American Activities committee was to what America was founded on. It was the committee that was UnAmerican — not the people it was investigating.

Roach does a solid job of directing but the film lacks a little fire and creativity in terms of its execution. But it has enough in its favor to still make it one of the top 10 films of this year.

"Trumbo" is a film with something to say and the passion and wit to say it well. Hollywood loves films about itself even when the focus is on an embarrassing chapter in its history. It’s also fitting that a film about a screenwriter reminds us how delicious it is to hear well written dialogue, in this case from John McNamara with some additional thanks to Bruce Cook who wrote the book "Dalton Trumbo," on which the film is based.

For the full review with clips from the film, listen to my podcast.

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