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Revisiting The Hollywood Blacklist With ‘Trumbo’

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

Show transcript

Trumbo

“Hollywood on Trial” (1976)
“The Front” (1976)
“Guilty By Suspicion” (1991)
“Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005)

Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, I’m Beth Accomando and I am in Wales at the Abertoir Horror Film Festival where I have already seen a couple of wild Asian extreme films and some classic British horror cinema, and I’ll have a podcast interview up tomorrow with Italian composer Fabio Frizzi. But I wanted to make sure and take a break from my horror fest to review Trumbo.

In a year when I was breathlessly awaiting a new Bond and a promising Star Wars installment, Trumbo 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 US 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. Take a listen.

CLIP Trailer

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 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 US and 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 as part of its probe into communist activity in the U.S. 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. 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 with 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.

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 important 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 4 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 UnAmerican 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 ten films of this year.

There are an embarrassingly small number of films that have looked to the blacklist, most notably the doc Hollywood on Trial and the films The Front, Guilty by Suspicion and most recently Good Night and Good Luck. What happened during the blacklist is something that makes me sick to my stomach because it so offends my sense of what’s right and goes so contrary to what this country is meant to stand for. There are a lot of issues worth fighting for but our right to freedom of speech is just so fundamental that to deny it in any way infuriates me and I’m not sure I could have been as gracious and forgiving as Trumbo was about how his rights were denied.

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.

If you want a film that will entertain you as well as remind you what things in life are worth fighting for, then go out and see Trumbo this weekend. Let’s pay tribute to Dalton Trumbo and to films that try to raise the bar.

Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. I’ll have my interview with Italian composer Fabio Frizzi up on Friday. I spoke to him earlier this week at the Abertoir Horror festival in Wales where he presented his Frizzi 2 Fulci concert for an enthusiastic crowd.

So till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie. And let’s go out with some music from Fabio Frizzi’s score for Zombi.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place