Audience reaction to this bio/historical drama will be strongly influenced by whether or not they have prior knowledge of the McCarthy-era in which thousands of Americans were ‘outed’ as communist sympathisers by the aggressively right-wing House Un-American Activities Committee. The infamy of this purge in all walks of public life, including government employment, teaching, the arts and entertainment, was captured in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1953) and adapted in the excellent film version of the same name in 1996. This background is important because the narrative structure of Trumbo (2015) covers a lot of this ground but leaves a lot of detail unexplained. The history not only back-drops the film but it parallels the extremities of debate in contemporary American politics.
Dalton Trumbo was a successful scriptwriter with known socialist associations when in 1947 he was called before the ‘McCarthy inquisition’ to denounce like-minded friends in Hollywood. His principled refusal led to him and others being blacklisted from any work in the entertainment industry for over a decade. Through luck and the greed of two powerful directors, he was given screen credit for ghost-writing two Oscar-winning films, Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956). Following endorsement by John F. Kennedy, his reputation was restored while the inquisition was disbanded. Trumbo is played by Bryan Cranston and this is his film, although Helen Mirren is a brilliantly malicious thorn in his side. His portrayal of Trumbo is a balance between muscular and humble, defiant and defeated, and the range of expression found in the nuanced movement of those furrowed brows is a language of its own. The back story of how this affected his family does drift toward melodrama but is kept in check by Cranston’s strong performance. The photography blends historical footage, black and white recreations of the period, together with modern cinematography, all of which adds narrative authenticity and an atmosphere evocative of the era.
Films like Trumbo deserve to be celebrated not only as entertainment but as credible historical artefacts. While historians may debate the detail, the viewing public needs to know how the political process tries to manipulate the production of popular culture in the interest of ideological purity, a phenomenon not unique to America. Although the story of Trumbo is old knowledge for many, the forces behind the story are alive and well around the world so it can happen again. With its high production values, this film represents historical storytelling at its best.
Director: Jay Roach
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren