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Movie Review: “Trumbo”

Nov 232015
 By , November 23, 2015

Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Trumbo

“Trumbo” – a film review by Gary Chew

After working in commercial radio for about four years, I met a person who soon became my mentor on how to be get better at talking on a microphone. The man was well-read. Among his many interests was Hollywood. Other than history, politics and every newspaper and magazine, it seems, he read gossipy and interesting books about film stars, producers, directors, film composers and the like. My mentor used to talk about Dalton Trumbo and the phenomenon in the late forties and fifties known as the “Hollywood Ten” or “Blacklist.” I hardly had a political bone in my body … I thought.

Decades have past since I learned of Trumbo, his left-wing politics and the more famous people around him who were either for him or against him. Even now, most of the names are well known: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Ronald Reagan, Hedda Hopper, Edward G. Robinson, Louis B. Mayer, etc.

trumboYes it’s been a long time, especially after reading of the tribulations of Dalton Trumbo (a biography by Bruce Cook*) to finally see a biopic about this Oscar winning screenwriter and novelist. And as luck would have it, Jay Roach, the director of Trumbo, got Bryan Cranston to play Trumbo.

Cranston has to be one of today’s hottest actors. His brilliant portrayal of Walter White in Breaking Bad has put Cranston at the top of the list of en vogue leading men. Cranston has come quite a way: earlier on, he was the father in the TV series, Malcom in the Middle. He’s just wrapped on playing LBJ in All the Way for an upcoming HBO mini-series. He recently won a Tony for that role on Broadway.

If you’re not a progressive or what used to be known as a liberal, Trumbo is probably not for you. Likely, only old school liberals won’t feel like throwing a rotten tomato or two at this movie, even though I’m sure the Rotten Tomatoes bunch will give it a high percentage mark.

This is one of those “Best Movie of the Year” type motion pictures. Helen Mirren is cast as Hopper, the ubiquitous Hollywood gossip columnist. (Think about that for a moment!) Whenever Mirren appears on the screen in Trumbo, it made me think of either Ann Coulter or Ayn Rand. Diane Lane plays Trumbo’s wife Cleo. I remember Lane coming to my former stomping grounds in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the shooting of two of her early films from the mid-eighties, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, both directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

TrumboTrumbo spent nearly a year in a federal prison for Contempt of Congress for not playing ball with the House Un-American Activities Committee with Senator Joseph McCarthy on hand. Trumbo had joined the Communist Party shortly after WWII. His timing was historically disastrous. Finally, he resorted to writing movie scripts under pseudonyms to earn a living for his wife and three children. But along the way under a phony name, he won an Oscar with his script for a genuinely excellent movie that starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck called Roman Holiday. Then with the gravitas of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, Trumbo was able to get his name on later screenplays he adapted for more first rate films, including Spartacus and Exodus. The Hollywood Ten era was so compelling that Woody Allen even appeared in a movie on the topic. It was titled The Front. Woody wasn’t the director; that was Martin Ritt.

An item in Cook’s biography about Trumbo was not used the movie. In about 1970, he wrote and directed his own film that proved to be a more startling anti-war movie than Stanley Kubrick’s classic Paths of Glory. Trumbo had a youthful Donald Sutherland playing a Jesus-like character in that one. Today, Sutherland is the main villain in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay II.

Even though John McNamara wrote the script, this real life story of Dalton Trumbo reads and plays much like one written by Dalton Trumbo.

*I recommend Cook’s book, Dalton Trumbo, on which the screenplay is based.

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Gary Chew was a classical music host, programmer and producer on Capital Public Radio’s KXPR 88.9FM, Sacramento for 18 years. He retired in January 2007. Read more about Gary's long and storied career here.

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