‘Trumbo’ explores redemption, justice

“Trumbo” (2015). Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Elle Fanning, David James Elliott, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, James DuMont, Alan Tudyk, Roger Bart, John Getz, Johnny Sneed, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Richard Portnow, Stephen Root, Madison Wolfe, Ronald Reagan (archive footage), Robert Taylor (archive footage), Humphrey Bogart (archive footage), Lauren Bacall (archive footage). Director: Jay Roach. Screenplay: John McNamara. Book: Bruce Cook, Dalton Trumbo. Web site. Trailer.

Life may not always be fair, but it usually seems to find a way to right itself. Enduring the trials and tribulations of such challenges might not be easy, but it often provides those who experience them with valuable insights, an education into how to turn around such situations. So it was for a troubled blacklisted screenwriter in the Hollywood of the 1950s as seen in the inspiring new biopic, “Trumbo.”

In 1947, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was one of the most acclaimed and best paid scribes in Hollywood, having achieved success with the scripts for such films as “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944) and the Oscar-nominated “Kitty Foyle” (1940). At the same time, he had also achieved a fair amount of notoriety for his radical politics as a member of the Communist Party USA, frequently participating in protests aimed at securing better pay for the movie industry’s unionized tradespeople. His support of these initiatives often earned him the ire of many Tinsel Town moguls, who sought to make films for as little money as possible.

There was nothing technically illegal about being a member of the Communist Party, though, with the rise of the Cold War and Red Menace paranoia, the organization’s constituents became targets of increased scrutiny. Spearheaded by the efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) chaired by Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ) (James DuMont), citizens from all walks of life were scrutinized in highly publicized hearings to assess their political views. This was particularly true for those in the movie industry. Fear that “Hollywood radicals” and their sympathizers would try to load films with subversive propagandist messages prompted HUAC to subpoena actors, directors, producers and screenwriters to testify about their views, their personal and professional associations, and what they knew about such alleged rampant, virulent conspiracies.

With the assistance of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, headed by such staunchly conservative Hollywood icons as actor John Wayne (David James Elliott) and immensely popular (and eminently powerful) gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), Thomas and his cronies went after high-profile “militants” like Trumbo and nine of his colleagues (“the Hollywood Ten”) to appear before the Committee. When Trumbo testified, he insisted that he hadn’t done anything illegal and was merely exercising his constitutionally protected rights. For his part, though, Thomas found Trumbo’s responses evasive and cited the screenwriter for contempt of Congress, a charge for which he was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to 11 months in a federal penitentiary.

After his release from prison, Trumbo immediately found himself blacklisted by the Hollywood community. No studio would hire him, and even long-standing supporters like actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and producers Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) and Buddy Ross (Roger Bart) turned their back on him to save their own necks. Trumbo’s inability to work led to severe financial strain, which, in turn, caused considerable tension in his home life. His relationships with his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), and his three children (most notably his eldest daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning)) were severely put to the test. If Trumbo were to survive, he would have to get creative in figuring out ways to get back to work.

For starters, Trumbo cut a deal with fellow screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) in which he asked his colleague to “front” a new script for him, agreeing to pay him a percentage of the fee if the screenplay sold. Fortunately, the duo found a buyer, enabling them to split the funds from their sale. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the accolades the script received when it won the Academy Award for best screenplay. Indeed, it would be many years before Trumbo could officially acknowledge his involvement in, and receive recognition for, his achievement in writing the script of “Roman Holiday” (1953).

But Trumbo’s deal with Hunter wasn’t enough to sustain him for the long term, especially once his collaborator came under increased scrutiny of his own. Trumbo needed another plan, but, with no one in mainstream Hollywood willing to hire him, he had to look to more unconventional sources of work. That led him to producer Frank King (John Goodman), a self-described creator of cinematic schlock who didn’t care about politics and was only interested in making as much money as he could from his mass-produced, low-budget “B” films. King thus agreed to hire Trumbo to write scripts anonymously, and, before long, he was so impressed with the quality, quantity and timeliness of Trumbo’s output that he allowed his newest scribe to recruit other blacklisted screenwriters, like Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) (a fictitious character who was a composite of several of Trumbo’s real-life colleagues). Through his association with King, Trumbo would go on to anonymously win another Oscar for his script of “The Brave One” (1956).

Word of Trumbo’s clandestine tactics was difficult to contain, however, especially once the likes of Hedda Hopper got wind of his schemes. But, given Trumbo’s reputation for quality, his unofficial but rumored award accomplishments and his ability to fly below the radar, he was quietly sought after by desperate producers who needed faulty scripts fixed without attracting a lot of attention. And the more expertise he gained at this, the more he was in demand, eventually including those who were no longer afraid of making their associations with Trumbo publicly known. This led to collaborations with actor Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), who served as executive producer of the Stanley Kubrick blockbuster “Spartacus” (1960), and filmmaker Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), director of the epic saga “Exodus” (1960). By coming aboveground with these projects, Trumbo managed to redeem himself and undermine the campaign of those who had unsuccessfully tried to discredit him and his colleagues, a wrong-headed initiative that, he wryly observed, ultimately netted no one guilty of the so-called un-American activities it was charged with investigating.

In hindsight, it’s almost inconceivable to imagine how the Red Scare got so out of control. The phenomenon essentially took on a life of its own, especially as its manifestation received more and more input from the masses who created and sustained it through the power of their beliefs, the basis of the conscious creation process. It was a potent and pervasive force, one that recruited legions of supporters and infiltrated virtually every aspect of American life. Unfortunately, it also ruined many lives and careers, especially in the entertainment industry, and all for naught.

For those who were victimized by this officially sanctioned witch hunt, the effects were devastating. This, of course, would legitimately prompt one to ask, why did they willingly participate in its creation? As this and many films like it demonstrate, perhaps it was to draw attention to the inherent injustice involved, to demonstrate the impact of unchecked power and to shine a spotlight on the efforts of those who would attempt to ride roughshod over our fundamental, constitutionally protected liberties. In the end, many of those who were unduly targeted – like Trumbo – were vindicated, ushering in a new era, one in which these atrocities were brought to a close and giving birth to a more tolerant, more inclusive society.

In Trumbo’s case in particular, one could argue from a conscious creation perspective that his blacklist experience was part of his education to the plight of the constituents he so fervently fought for. Early in the film, for example, one of Trumbo’s colleagues notes the irony of his involvement with the Communist Party in light of his own personal affluence. Indeed, was it truly possible for someone so materially comfortable to be able to fully appreciate the circumstances of those less financially fortunate? Perhaps his personal misfortunes gave him a new appreciation for the difficulties of the downtrodden, something he needed to experience firsthand to become a more effective advocate.

In turn, to extricate himself from these circumstances, Trumbo needed to create the means for counteracting the conditions that placed him in this personal dilemma. He did so by pushing the limits of his beliefs, manifesting inventive approaches for reversing his misfortunes, and he did so by drawing on what he did best – his writing. By facing his fears, acting with integrity and being willing to think outside the box – all key concepts in successful implementation of the conscious creation process – he managed to ply his craft, using innovative methods to bring it to fruition and ultimately making it possible to undermine the efforts of those who sought to silence him and squelch the principles he championed.

Through these efforts, Trumbo successfully reinvented himself. In a sense, he “redeemed” himself in the eyes of his peers and the public at large (even though he and his most ardent supporters probably would have asserted that he didn’t engage in anything in any way necessitating redemption). Trumbo likely would have said that he was merely fighting for a fundamental sense of fairness and the protection of our constitutionally guaranteed rights. He also probably would have claimed that he was seeking to inspire a new generation of advocates of these principles. This was most apparent with his daughter Niki, who, even as a child (Madison Wolfe), was drawn to the ideals promoted by her father. As a young adult, she would pick up on these notions and become active in the movement to secure voting rights for minorities.

Most importantly, though, Trumbo managed to work his way through all of his trials and tribulations by living his value fulfillment, the conscious creation concept related to each of us being our truest, best selves for the benefit and betterment of ourselves and those around us. Trumbo was a writer first and foremost, and he managed to find ways to continue as such despite the obstacles in his way. And, even though it took some time for the errors of the past to be rectified, he would eventually receive the award recognition he earned for his efforts. He was officially credited for his work on “The Brave One” in 1975, shortly before his death, and on “Roman Holiday” in 1992, a posthumous tribute accepted by his wife. Despite the many hardships he endured, one could readily contend that Trumbo indeed lived a life well led.

“Trumbo” is an entertaining, informative biopic about an amazing talent and a troubled era in Hollywood and American history. The picture successfully fuses archived newsreel footage with its central narrative, recalling such other similar titles as “The Front” (1976), “Guilty by Suspicion” (1991) and “The Way We Were” (1973) (to which Trumbo himself was an uncredited contributor). The film features a dynamite, award-worthy lead performance by Bryan Cranston, who has significantly upped his game here, as well as terrific supporting portrayals by Goodman, Mirren, Stuhlbarg and a host of other players, all of whom faithfully depict legendary Hollywood icons without ever looking foolish or cartoonish. The movie’s excellent production values beautifully capture the look and feel of the era, with a backing soundtrack that complements the mood of the story.

Ironically, though, the film’s script leaves something to be desired at times (especially in its sometimes-meandering first hour), but its many other fine attributes (particularly its performances) cover this shortcoming well. In all, this release serves up a sumptuous cinematic feast with an important reminder of how important it is to protect our fundamental civic rights and values, especially when intolerance attempts to aggressively intrude upon our cherished freedoms.

Seeking justice and redeeming oneself are valuable life lessons for all of us, particularly when we feel unduly put upon. But making the effort to pursue such lofty goals is crucial to preserve our rights and our integrity, if not our very sanity. Trumbo’s courage set an inspiring example for us all – but let’s hope his efforts have made it possible for us to never have to endure the ordeal that he did.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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