Trumbo (London Film Festival 2015) Review

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The investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) mark a painful period in US history. At a time when paranoia about Soviet takeovers ran high, the unit scrutinised individuals suspected of having communist sympathies. Among them were The Hollywood Ten, a group of established screenwriters and directors who refused to testify before the committee. They were all condemned for contempt of Congress and blacklisted – that is to say, denied employment in Hollywood.

Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, was a prolific screenwriter who successfully defied the blacklist and went on to win two Academy Awards under borrowed identities. Directed by Jay Roach, who established his career in slapstick comedies such as Meet the Parents and The Campaign, Trumbo takes a humorous angle on the personal tragedies of the writer’s life. It works brilliantly and the wittiness of the first-rate dialogue mirrors that of the films of that period. Trumbo is a biopic that tackles a moving, serious subject while remaining thoroughly entertaining.

The story begins with Dalton (Bryan Cranston) encountering tensions on set due to his political affiliations. Soon afterwards, Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren – brilliantly loathsome), a famed entertainment journalist, calls him a traitor in a newsreel, provoking investigations by the HUAC. Steadfast by his side are his wife Chloe (Diane Lane), who is scripted as improbably understanding, and his daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning).

Aside from its brilliant repartees, which Cranston delivers with either perfect mock innocence or complete insolence, one of the film’s pleasures is its celebration of 40s and 50s classics. It melds footage from the films it refers to with reshot scenes. For instance, we see Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) go through make-up up on the set of Spartacus, and then go on to watch reels from the original film. O’Gorman is right on the mark as the actor. Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), John Wayne (David James Elliott), and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) also appear. It makes for a wonderful game of ‘who’s who’. In addition, John Goodman is side-splitting as John King, the owner of low-budget production company King Bros.

Louis C.K. is thoughtful as fellow scriptwriter and communist Arlen Hird, and is the film’s moral conscience of sorts. He is more unrelenting than Trumbo on his principles, and as such, doomed to financial failure. As the two friends argue, it is clear that neither can be right in an impossible situation – just as it becomes obvious that their common acquaintance Robinson, while guilty of an ugly betrayal, had no other choice if he wished to pursue his career. The film doesn’t hesitate to take jabs at the American right, repeatedly denouncing Ronald Reagan’s cooperation with the investigations (at the time, he was president of the Screen Actors Guild).

Trumbois a thoroughly witty biopic, a film for classic movie-lovers, and a strong defence of freedom of speech.

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Overall

An unexpectedly funny biopic and an eloquent homage to Dalton Trumbo.

9

out of 10

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