TIFF 2015: Blacklist-themed biopic, with Bryan Cranston as the titular screenwriter
Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was one of the most high profile victims of the anti-Communist hysteria that swept through post-war America. Trumbo made no secret of his perfectly legal membership of the Communist Party of the United States. When he refused to play ball with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he was cited for contempt and sentenced to imprisonment, joining the swelling ranks of 'dangerous radicals' who were blacklisted by the major studios over the next decade.
Trumbo, from director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents), transforms one of Hollywood’s darkest periods into a jauntily entertaining, lightweight slice of social history that cuts a little deeper when it addresses the politics and individual tragedies of the era. Less a biopic of Trumbo than a portrait of the crushing injustice of the blacklist era, it features a compelling central performance from Bryan Cranston, who captures a real flavour of the dapper, gentlemanly Trumbo who remains an eternally reasonable, decent fellow even as his life is thrown off course by his principled stance.
In an inspirational final speech, Trumbo suggests that we shouldn’t look for heroes and villains in what happened but only victims. The film takes a similarly balanced approach, finding sympathy for actor Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), who sacrificed his friends and beliefs to save his career. There are heroes though, including Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), who broke the blacklist to employ and credit Trumbo as the screenwriter of Spartacus; and villains too, especially merciless gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with acid-tipped relish by Helen Mirren.
John McNamara’s breezy screenplay condenses complex events and an eventful life into a trim, accessible feature. If you know little of what happened in Hollywood during the 1940s and 1950s, Trumbo will inform and entertain, shedding light on some grim times.
Screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2015. General release from Fri 22 Jan 2016.