In 1947 Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is one of the most in-demand screenplay writers in all of Hollywood. When him & his friends become victims of a witch hunt that chases communist sympathizers in Hollywood, his career seems to be over. All communists in Hollywood are blacklisted by the studio and as a result none of them are able to get any work. While Trumbo fights the accusations, he keeps delivering screenplays under different names. The nationalistic anti-communist movement in Hollywood, led by the devious columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and with none other than John Wayne (David James Elliott) as its spokesperson, tries to ban all known communist sympathizers from influencing the public by inserting their ideas into mainstream movies. Little do they know that the man behind critically acclaimed crowd-pleaser ‘Roman Holiday’ is actually the best-known communist in all of Hollywood.
Movies about social injustice have the power to evoke the deepest of emotions in their audiences, making them clench their fists and yell at the screen. Recent examples like ‘Selma‘, ‘Pride’ and ‘12 Years a slave‘ got this exactly right. ‘Trumbo’ is a great film about a very important topic with all the potential to be just as epic as these aforementioned movies, yet it somehow does not captivate the way it could have. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why, as the subject is deeply fascinating, but somehow it just doesn’t reach the emotional heights of similar movies from the last few years.
Bryan Cranston is definitely not to blame, as his performance is fantastic and his Oscar nomination is very well deserved. The whole cast is excellent actually, especially John Goodman who brings great comic relief in his role as B-movie producer Frank King for whom Trumbo writes uncredited run of the mill scripts. The direction by Jay Roach (still best known for directing the Austin Powers-movies) is also well-done, yet the film as a whole seems just be a tad bit too slow. A fair bit of advance knowledge is also required; viewers who are not familiar with ‘Roman Holiday’, ‘Spartacus’ or ‘Exodus’ won’t get as much out of the film as well-informed movie geeks would. Music fans waiting for a reference to Trumbo’s famous novel ‘Johnny Got His Gun’, upon which Metallica based their classic song ‘One‘, will be surprised that his gruesome anti-war novel isn’t mentioned anywhere.
The key subjects in ‘Trumbo’ are freedom of speech and to an extent even freedom of thought. It is bizarre to see not only how in post-World War II America Communism was considered the greatest threat in the world, but especially how every person that openly expressed anything not completely pro-capitalist or patriotic was outlawed for life. It is interesting that the movie is being released around the same time that politician Bernie Sanders is rising in the polls in the U.S, as anyone openly supporting his socialist-democrat beliefs of universal healthcare, affordable education and a non-corrupt banking system would have immediately been thrown in jail in the days of the anti-communist witch hunt. It just goes to show that America has come a long way.
Dalton Trumbo believed in the idea of communism, however due to limited access to information he & his fellow-sympathizers probably had no idea that the communist countries around at the time were actual brutal dictatorships, with much more discrepancy of wealth and power than any capitalist country. His beliefs were mainly inspired by the idea that everyone should get a fair go, just like people in Australia used to believe too long ago.