Few people knew who Bryan Cranston was a few years ago, but his awe inspiring, career defining performance as Breaking Bad’s Walter White has bestowed huge awareness and popularity upon him, meaning that he now has his pick of big budget supporting roles and leads in independent features. His astute choice to portray blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo has resulted in what is probably his finest feature film performance to date.

Other than The Front, Martin Ritt’s 1976 blacklist comedy starring Woody Allen as a grocer who puts his name on scripts written by blacklistees, American filmmakers have steered clear of this dark chapter in post war U.S. history. After WWI and during the troubled years of the depression many intellectuals and creative types joined the American Communist Party, as Communism was perceived to be the best bet for ensuring better standards of living for all and to overcome the inequalities created by capitalism (which was seen to have failed spectacularly with the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent economic hardship it initiated).

By the 1950s, anti-Communist paranoia was rampant in the U.S., and many lives were ruined by the ideological witch hunt spearheaded by men (and a few women) who launched or built careers by cynically fomenting and ruthlessly exploiting this paranoia via the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). People labelled as Communists, and many who were simply left wing liberals/socialists, and even those who were entirely falsely accused, were sacked and were unable to get another job, often for many years (many lists of ‘reds’ were printed in newspapers).

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Trumbo looks at the writer’s life from the point at which his reputation and livelihood came under threat (at a point when he was one of the highest paid writers in the world) to the point at which he ultimately triumphs against his persecutors, highlighting his heroism in standing up for the rights of every American to believe in what they wish to, as guaranteed by the U.S Constitution’s First Amendment.

Trumbo is presented as a decent, courageous man who was not without his contradictions. Something of a champagne socialist who liked the lifestyle Hollywood success brought him, he organised and managed a secretive network of blacklisted screenwriters who wrote under pseudonyms, often for ‘poverty row’ producers like the King brothers (portrayed as rather lovable hustlers by John Goodman and Stephen Root). He also bullied his family into putting his work and his battle with the far-right above everything else, almost losing the affections of his adoring wife and daughter (Diane Lane and Elle Fanning) in the process.

Every protagonist needs an antagonist, and in Trumbo’s case it’s gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, a hideous anti-Semite who waves the flag as another means to wield power and force the studio owners to bend to her will. As played by Helen Mirren she practically rides into Louis B. Mayer’s office on a broomstick, but Mirren effectively conveys how powerful, vindictive and loathsomely inhumane the forces were that aligned themselves against the industry’s liberals.BryanCranstonHelenMirrenTrumbo_article_story_large

Cranston’s Trumbo fixes his steely, disdainful gaze on those questioning him on the televised HUAC interrogations, but the gaze becomes a warm one when he is with his family and friends. One gets the sense that his Trumbo would probably be uncomfortable with being branded heroic; he simply wanted to be able to believe in what he wanted to believe in as is his right as an American, and to be rewarded handsomely for his work so that he and his family can live in the privileged, affluent manner they has become accustomed to – also one of his rights as an American.

The perseverance of Trumbo and his ‘fellow travellers’, and the intervention of powerful Hollywood players like Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger who finally spoke out and hired and credited Trumbo under his own name, ultimately defeated the efforts of the far right to silence leftists in America.  Trumbo may not have seen himself as a hero, but he most certainly was.

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Trumbo
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I've worked in entertainment product development and sales & marketing in the U.S., UK and my native Canada for over 20 years, and have been a part of many changes during that time (I've overseen home entertainment releases on VHS, LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray). I've also written and commentated about film and music for many outlets over the years. The first film I saw in the cinema was Mary Poppins, some time in the mid-60s: I was hooked. My love of the moving image remains as strong as ever.