The most antiwar film I’ve ever seen was back in 1971, ‘Johnny Got His Gun’. It was about a young soldier in World War I for limbs amputated further injuries removing his abilities to see, hear or even taste. It was a particularly intense experience my birthday would be included in the upcoming selective service lottery. Millions of others a similar fate would be quite possible during a tour in Vietnam. The individual who wrote and directed this film was Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter and directed I have long admired have been greatly impressed by his works. The list of his works include some of the greatest movies ever made including writing scripts for ‘Spartacus’, Roman Holiday ‘and ‘Exodus’. Although several of his scripts won the Academy Award he was not only denied the coveted golden statuette but he was barred from even receiving credit for his artistry. 1947 Mr. Trumbo was among a group of 10 screenwriters were blacklisted and unable to submit scripts to any American motion picture. Not to have his creativity stifled Trumbo and several others obtain the services of people who would take credit for their work serving as fronts. The latest movie by director Jay Roach examined this period of time in microcosm to the vantage point of Dalton Trumbo and the effect being blacklisted had upon him. The film, ‘Trumbo’, is one of the most intense films of the year that the man’s to be seen as both a showcase for career defining performances in a message that should never be forgotten. Today we revel in the freedom of artistic expression guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. There are also movements to severely restrict people solely on their beliefs. While there are certainly national security concerns with the number of extremist groups the story contained in this movie can serve as a cautionary tale depicting what might happen if the current social political environment follows along a similar path.
During the 40s Dalton Trumbo was among the top eight screenwriters in Hollywood. But many artistic geniuses he was eccentric and exceptionally opinionated. This period of time was set between the Soviet Union being our allies in World War II and the zeitgeist that was defined by the anti-Communist, ‘Red Menace ‘scares that dominated the 50s and 60s. Trumbo had once been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party which he joined in communism is still be seen as an alternative to matters of social and economic concerns. It was never part of the fringe elements that actively supported the overthrow of the United States government or actively aided the military political machinations of the USSR. Still, he found himself on the list of 10 screenwriters were barred from plying their craft. Themes such as this could easily become rated down by the ponderous social issues it explores. Fortunately this contingency was expertly avoided because of two very unlikely contributors working behind the camera.
Screenplay was furnished by John McNamara was primarily known as a writer and producer for television series. Working on the list of his works you would hardly feel that a biopic concerning the crucial social issue would be something that he would even be considered for. He worked with several TV crime dramas such as ‘In Plain Sight’, ‘Prime Suspect ‘and the one season revival of ‘The Fugitive’. He is also had extensive experience in science fiction/fantasy TV series including ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’ and ‘Jericho’. You can currently see his work the new fantasy series ‘The Magicians’. Most of the series have been highly regarded among their fans but nothing would give evidence to the shopping honed screenplay for this film. He manages to capture the essence of these dark days in American history without giving into the building some inevitably had that this was a crushing blow to freedom. Instead he brought a degree of levity, albeit by means of some dark humor, to the unusual personal quirks manifested by Dalton Trumbo. When Trumbo turned his home into a veritable script factory he would frequently write one in the bathtub. The idea that some of the most impressive screenplays ever made into motion pictures were created by a man sitting naked in the top, his teeth gripping and ever present cigarette holder cannot help but to take the edge off the seriousness of the topic. The social modestly of depicting indisputable fact that Dalton Trumbo was not about to let a group of senators denied him his passion for writing.
A similar thing can be said for the director, Jay Roach. He’s known mostly for some animated comedic films such as to comedic trilogies, ‘the Fockers’ and ‘Austin Powers’. He also wrote the teleplay for a made for television sci-fi movie, ‘Lifepod’, which is an imaginative retelling of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ set in outer space. It has been said that it is easy for one proficient in comedy moved to drama than the other way around the veracity of this statement is no proving that this movie. Mr. Roach approaches the subject matter not as a tale of social oppression but instead of indomitable spirit of a man who refuses to have his creativity suppressed by an uncaring government or the infamous HUAC, The House Un-American Activities Committee, convened by the U.S. Senate mandated to ferret out communist within the entertainment industry and other vital aspects of American life. Taking the same facts and by shifting the vantage point is able to lighten the mood once again by focusing to the optimism held by is the Trumbo. He took a stance against the committee even to the point of incarceration because he was certain that the liberal Supreme Court overturned the decisions of a biased group of senators. Although that was not to happen as anticipated Trumbo never let it affect the quality of his work or his love for writing.
This comedic background motif extends around to the front of the camera as well. Bryan Cranston in his portrayal is Dalton Trumbo is nothing short of brilliant. It is earned him an Academy award nomination for best actor in a leading role, and deservedly so. Initially known for his portrayal of the notes released clueless sitcom father on ‘Malcolm in the Middle’, he has become one of television’s finest dramatic actor for his portrayal of Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’, hailed by many as one of the finest television service ever produced. It was certainly one of the most emotionally intense series which was largely due to Mr. Cranston’s continued excellence in his role. He was able to channel some of the peculiarities of the sitcom character, Hal and synergistically blend them with the psychological intensity of Walter White. The result was a portrait of a man betrayed by members of his own community and served up to a government committee in search of scapegoats necessary for sensationalistic headlines. Even when Cranston is faced with a smaller role your TV show he owns the screen whenever he appears. When given set the stage the effect is greatly enhanced so that the presence of his characters felt even when those rare occasions and he is not in the scene occur. Cranston is a true journeyman actor long years of hard work and dedication has become a master craftsman as shown in this film.
As mentioned the author of Trumbo’s discontent was within the entertainment industry itself. Tabloids and gossip columns are nothing new. There will always paparazzo searching for an embarrassing photograph and somebody anxious to turn any incident, no matter how innocent, into salacious headlines. Back then the power of such a person was not gauged by the number of followers on social media with the number of subscribers to the magazines and newspapers the work for. Enthroned at the apex of the Hollywood gossip hierarchy was Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) a person who derived unimaginable power in the industry it was able to maintain a small mind of a bigot . In conjunction with other antisocialist stars such as John Wayne (David James Elliott), Trumbo was served up to the chairman of the HUAC, J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont) and hold before the committee who demanded that he confessed his allegiance to Communist Party and publicly declare of other members of the entertainment industry health similar sentiments. His refusal landed him in jail and also resulted in being abandoned by several powerful friends in Hollywood including Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and producer Buddy Ross (Roger Bart). Ironically, while Trumbo was serving his sentence in Texarkana prison, he runs into a fellow prisoner, J. Parnell Thomas, who was convicted of tax evasion.
One of the lighter moments has to be those involved in his home-based script factory. With the assistance of his faithful wife, Cleo (Diane Lane) and daughter, Nikola (Elle Fanning) he turned out the scripts that would be produced by the low-budget King Brothers Productions. But even finding such outlets did not free Trumbo from persecution; Hopper actively pressured the King Brothers to fire Trumbo. Finally in 1960 Trumbo wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s sword and sandals epic, ‘Spartacus’. He was recruited for this position by the start of the film, r Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman). Soon after Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), bias Trumbo is a script writer for ‘Exodus’. Both men were quick and eager to give full credit to Trumbo with these groundbreaking scripts. It would take another decade before Dalton Trumbo finally received the full credit he so richly deserved.