Trumbo pays homage to the writer as survivor.
It is based on the experiences of novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) who became persona non grata in Hollywood, was imprisoned, and then wrote screenplays under pseudonyms, winning an Academy Award with the name Robert Rich for The Brave One (1956).
Trumbo and his peers in Hollywood were blacklisted for their communist and left-wing affiliations. Because of this, they were unable to find employment. The House Un-American Activities Committee brought extreme pressure against those it considered enemies of the United States of America.
Dalton Trumbo was one of the luckier ones, although he might not think so as he was imprisoned for contempt of Congress. But when he was released from prison, he embarked on a successful, clandestine career. He went to work for the King brothers, who produced schlock movies.
He wrote and polished many screenplays, but his name appeared on none of them. And he wrote the screenplay for Roman Holiday (1953), which won an Oscar for its screenplay. His friend Ian McLellan Hunter, was listed as the writer as a front.
Unlike actors, who have to show their faces, writers didn't need to show anything but their work. Trumbo enlisted other blacklisted writers to write manuscripts for the King Brothers voracious franchise and other studios.
Trumbo and his family - his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and children - typed scripts, handled them, and ran them to producers. It proved to be exhausting but a booming secretive venture.
Ultimately, Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960) and Otto Preminger in Exodus (1960) put Trumbo's name in the credits, which signaled the power of the blacklist was coming to an end.
But it had been a war. One can witness this phenomenon today in the battle being waged against Planned Parenthood. There is no compromise. Those who are against it consider themselves warriors for good. They must attempt to destroy the evil opposition. There must be no mercy.
Trumbo captures the sense of America as a country of enemies.
What works best in the film is the acting, Bryan Cranston gives a bravura performance of Dalton Trumbo, who has a touch of wry braggadocio and self-absorption.
Jay Roach, who directed the excellent TV movie Game Change (2012), has a gift for actors and sly humor. His casting person David Rubin once again gathers a nifty group of actors.
Diane Lane is worthy as Cleo. Elle Fanning is especially poised and perceptive as the Trumbos' teenage daughter Nikola.
John Goodman is a hoot as Frank King. Louis C.K. is a fictional composite character as the ill-fated Allen Hird. And Helen Mirren once again is memorable, this time as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Mirren also was a major figure as Alma in Hitchcock (2012), a film like Trumbo. Both films are bursting with reminiscence for Hollywood's past and have empathy for their main character.
Hopper's anti-Semitic line of dialogue in Trumbo is something of a shock on screen in 2015. But it's relevant to her character. She's a smiling shark.
Unusual casting in Trumbo pays off well. The most unlikely is Canadian David James Elliott (TV's Jag) as John Wayne. Elliott bulks up and carries it off effectively. Michael Stuhlberg is solid as Edward G. Robinson, and Dean Gorman is engaging as Kirk Douglas. Was Kirk Douglas ever this appealing? Ask Stanley Kubrick.
The screenplay by John McNamara, adapted from a book by Bruce Cook, is uneven. Most biopics have soft spots, and Trumbo sometimes lets Trumbo off too easily. Biopics often end with the figure getting an ovation from an audience. This is the easiest kind of ending. Trumbo ends with Trumbo getting an award and giving a speech. A generic, speechified ending is not up to Dalton Trumbo's standards.
Roach includes a credit sequence of the actual Dalton Trumbo in an interview talking about his daughter. Roach doesn't seem to have decided how to end his film, so he gives it multiple endings.
It's quite a step down from the issues the film has raised.
Actor Edward G. Robinson went a year without getting a role. He then turned on his friends and confidants. In the film, so does producer Buddy Ross (Roger Bart) who snidely rebuffs Trumbo in public. Both were attempting to regain or hold on to their status.
Trumbo poses the crucial question, how much would you give up before crumbling? At what point would you sacrifice your principle to salvage your career?
In a capitalistic society, principal is in the wallet.
When politics - and its bastard offspring propaganda - overwhelm individuality, society takes a shot to the brain. It's societal lobotomy by politician.
Trumbo pokes at these issues in an entertaining way.
But we also need more than just poking today.