Sunday 6 March 2016

Trumbo by John MacNamara

This movie is catnip for people, like me, who are fascinated by screenwriting. Dalton Trumbo was one of the great writers of the golden age of Hollywood. In his towering ability, his speed, his prolific output and his cynicism, he is reminiscent of Ben Hecht.

But unlike Ben Hecht, Trumbo fell seriously afoul of the great red witchunt of the 1950s for his communist sympathies and ended up being blacklisted. Which meant, at the height of his career, he could no longer work in Hollywood... or could he?

Trumbo is a joyous, terrific movie which tells the tale of how Trumbo circumvented the blacklist. Out hero is played by Bryan Cranston, famed as Walter White in Breaking Bad, a fearless actor who has no hesitation in making himself look physically pitiful — indeed, he seems to revel in it.

The film grippingly follows the rollercoaster ride of Trumbo's career. He's the highest paid scriptwriter in Hollywood when he is destroyed by vindictive commie-haters like the despicable gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Hopper is brilliantly played by Helen Mirren, just part of a peerless cast, including Michael Stuhlbarg — who was so excellent in Steve Jobs — as Edward G. Robinson.

The only problem with the movie is that a lot of famed movie stars are among the characters. How do you cast someone to play John Wayne or Kirk Douglas? Well here we have David James Elliott and Dean O'Gorman, both of whom project some of the physical presence of the originals. But in the case of O'Gorman I felt Douglas's distinctive voice was all wrong.

Never mind, this is an exhilarating, heartbreaking movie. And one of the few I've seen which does a great job of depicting family life. Trumbo obviously had a wonderful wife (played by Diane Lane) and kids, and when you see them lose their house in the country it's a real jolt. On the other hand, watching Trumbo win not one but two Oscars while he's on the blacklist is wicked fun. Also, seeing John Goodman as a hack producer chasing a commie-hunter out of his office with a baseball bat is priceless.

Trumbo is written by John MacNamara, a prolific TV writer, and based on a book by Bruce Cook. It's directed, perhaps surprisingly, by Jay Roach who is best known for the Austin Powers comedies. MacNamara and Roach do a great job, and there's a dynamite score by Theodore Shapiro.

A wonderful film, and you don't have to be a screenwriting aficionado to love it.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards for the posters. The book cover is from Amazon.)


  1. Every Sunday I make it a point to watch a random movie I've not heard of before. I'm going to start checking here first before making my selection. This one is going on the "must watch soon" list.

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  3. Thank you for reading, and commenting... This film prompted me to get hold of Dalton Trumbo's collected letters (entitled 'Additional Dialogue'). It's a fat and fascinating book, quite hard to find on the second hand market and often pricey, but a well-equipped library should have a copy and I recommend it.

  4. This is great drama of an era when America succumbed to fear only to devour itself from within. It richly deserves to be remembered and not forgotten. But you'll find very few historical dramas that are so entertaining and downright fun while resurrecting such painful memories. It's a script that Dalton himself would have been proud to have written.