Politics and popular culture collided as never before in the Hollywood blacklist era of the late 1940s and '50s. Hysteria over the "red menace" represented by Soviet-style communism led the U.S. Congress to establish the House Un-American Activities Committee, which interrogated members of the Hollywood creative community (and other industries) for alleged communist sympathies, requiring them to name others with "questionable" political affiliations.
Many who refused to cooperate (citing their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly) were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, leaving them unable to work, support their families or maintain their careers. Foremost among the victims of the Hollywood blacklist was erudite Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Spartacus). Trumbo was ringleader of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors cited for contempt of Congress who actually went to prison rather than compromise their principles or inform on their friends.
Covering the years 1947 to 1970, Trumbo is director Jay Roach's biopic of the colorful, larger-than-life scribe, whose personal story provides an ideal entry point into the dark days of the blacklist. Those unfamiliar with that history may learn a lot from Trumbo. Others should approach with caution: in a terrible irony, Trumbo is hamstrung by a superficial and cliche-ridden screenplay written by television producer and writer John McNamara. One can't help but imagine how Trumbo — who, as seen in the film, spent much of his blacklisted time fixing other writers' bad screenplays — might have been just the man to save his own biopic. Trumbo died in 1976.
Roach, who is known for broad, character-driven comedies like his Austin Powers and Meet the Parents series, similarly may not have been the ideal choice to direct Trumbo. All the problems inherent to the Hollywood biopic are present and accounted for, especially the greatest hits-style compilation of watershed moments in the life of a public figure. Even the best biopics tend to trivialize complex lives, and Trumbo is far from the best.
A strong cast presses on and achieves some memorable moments despite trying circumstances. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) tackles the lead role with relentless gusto. In his best moments, he wordlessly hints at a depth of character not suggested by the film's dialogue. Helen Mirren chews the scenery in the best possible way as Hedda Hopper, the Hollywood star-turned-gossip columnist who supported the blacklist and made a mortal enemy of Trumbo and other Hollywood liberals.
The film's best moments belong to John Goodman as exploitation film producer Jack Strong, who responds to a demand that he fire the blacklisted Trumbo (who worked for him and many others under pseudonyms) by brandishing a golf club and smashing up his own office just to make a point.
The Trumbo production team went to great lengths to illuminate its subject's sometimes shaky personal life, even bringing in Trumbo's two real-life daughters as script consultants. But delving into Trumbo's character flaws doesn't add much to his story or enhance our understanding of what made Trumbo an essential figure. For all its failings, Trumbo succeeds as a cautionary tale for our times, a not-so-gentle reminder that nothing justifies throwing away the very liberties that distinguish us from our adversaries.