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“Trumbo” is a polished, very entertaining dive into Hollywood absurdity

Only two of the Unfriendly Ten were talented. The other eight were just unfriendly.

That was Billy Wilder’s wisecrack about the Hollywood figures who refused to cooperate with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee during the anti-communist witch hunts of the late-1940s and early ’50s.

Wilder was, and always will be, the heavyweight champion of the Hollywood wisecrack but in his time, he didn’t lack for competition. (It seems to have been super-agent Sue Mengers who reacted to Elvis Presley’s death by pausing and calling it “a good career move.”)

What distinguished Wilder’s crack from all others about the Unfriendly Ten is that he wasn’t really wrong. The most talented, by far, of the Unfriendly Ten, was Dalton Trumbo, a truly distinguished Hollywood screenwriter whose refusal to cooperate put him behind bars and then on a blacklist until Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas broke it by actually crediting Trumbo’s work in “Exodus” and “Spartacus.” (The films appeared in reverse order but it was Preminger who seemed – typically – to be the one most eager to slap an actual longtime blacklistee’s name on a major film credit.)

Until the blacklist was broken, Trumbo wrote or co-wrote many movies – a good percentage of them unconscionable dreck but some good and even great ones too that varied all the way from William Wyler’s classic “Roman Holiday,” to “The Prowler,” “Gun Crazy” and “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell.” Either he wrote them under pseudonyms or behind “fronts” – designated screenwriters who pretended authorship for a nominal fee so that Trumbo could receive most of the income.

Two of his films won screenwriting Oscars he couldn’t pick up – “Roman Holiday” for a front, “The Brave One” for a Trumbo pseudonym. Before the blacklist, Trumbo wrote “A Guy Named Joe” and “Kitty Foyle,” movies about as Hollywood as they come. After it, he wrote “Papillon,” “Executive Action” and “Lonely Are the Brave.” He was, by any possible assay, a major American screenwriter.

As entertaining as it is, “Trumbo” only gives you a tiny sense of that. Even worse, it airbrushes somewhat the cruelties and injustices of the blacklist. Lives other than Trumbo’s were tortured and wrecked by it. Suicides happened. The anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy Era was probably most absurd when applied to well-off Hollywoodians whose membership in the Communist Party was, at the time, only 5 inches to the left of ordinary unionism.

In the history of the American Left, bravado characterized the American communists, not any actual threat. Spies were few and far between. Sabotage was freakish. To the degree that actual propaganda can be found in their screenplays, it’s largely painful to hear now. And I suspect that was always true most of the time.

While it airbrushes the tragedies a bit, what “Trumbo” does with surprising grace is counterpoint the often comic absurdity of life during the blacklist with the serious moral dilemmas of lives under assault by one of the more shameful organizations ever to be part of American government.

The fact that there is so much humor in “Trumbo” – a scene where John Goodman as a very real schlock movie producer, throws a would-be right-wing bully out of his office is hilarious – is a tribute to how absurd the animadversions of the time now seem.

The director is Jay Roach, who previously gave us “Meet the Parents,” “Meet the Fockers,” and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Comedian Louis C.K. plays it absolutely straight here as a fictional screenwriter friend of Trumbo’s.

Trumbo is played with all of his cigarette-holder flamboyance by Bryan Cranston, who, long before “Breaking Bad” made him one of the definitive sociopaths of cable TV, was best known as good old Dad on “Malcolm in the Middle.”

The story of Trumbo is not a funny story at its lowest points. But it is crammed to the roof with the star-spangled absurdities of a deranged period of American history.

It is a triumph of this movie to make David James Elliott as John Wayne and Helen Mirren as a pestilential Hedda Hopper seem truly menacing at the time beneath their ridiculous posturing. And in its portrait of Edward G. Robinson – played by Michael Stuhlbarg – it gives a realistic sense of how one fellow traveler felt he could no longer travel with the Unfriendly Ten and their ilk. He cooperated with the committee’s “investigations” to get his career back.

It was, the film harshly implies, the only way he could get his Van Gogh back after selling it when he ran out of money while blacklisted. The movie seems to have no truck whatsoever with the possibility that Robinson, a truly great film actor, despaired of life without the ability to use what we now know to be his extraordinary gift.

At the same time, the film has far too little interest in Preminger’s troublemaking flamboyance, despite actor Christian Berkel’s self-evident readiness to carry his Preminger turn anywhere he was asked to.

“Trumbo,” then, is very much a polished, ultra-professional, middle-of-the-road telling of one of the great Hollywood stories. It’s a satisfying entertainment about the life of a brilliant screenwriter who, toward the end of a life during which he won two Oscars he couldn’t collect, concluded the McCarthy Era follies resulted, ultimately, in “only victims.”

I’d give almost anything to know what the real Trumbo would have said privately about this successful entertainment.

Not to mention Billy Wilder.



3 stars

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Louis C.K.

Director: Jay Roach

Running time: 124 minutes.

Rating: R for language, sexual references, mature subject matter.

The Lowdown: The life and ultimate triumph of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.