Jay Roach's "Trumbo" (2015): A screenwriter sculpts the most cinematic tale out of his own life

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Anirban Lahiri

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Trumbo, Movie Poster, Directed by Jay Roach, starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren
Trumbo (2015) - By Jay Roach
Our Rating: 7.0
IMDb Ratings: 7.5
Genre: Biography | Political | Drama
Cast: Bryan Cranstone, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren
Language: English
Runtime: 124 min
Color: Color

Summary: Dalton Trumbo falls from the position of the highest paid Hollywood screenwriter to be blacklisted by the industry and sent to prison, because of his communist affiliation. Indomitable, he comes back to unleash a new life in Hollywood.
Fifteen years ago, during the Masters in Film Studies, I read about the effect of McCarthyism on Hollywood ( a misnomer in fact. It began even before McCarthy joined office. In many cases, McCarthy had no hand in the witch-hunting, as there were multiple committess for communist purging across the country working interlinked, and independenly of each other), and the subsequent blacklist, in some details. However, like many other historical details, such as the Edison antitrust case, or the numerous patent lawsuits during the early days of talkies, it did not really impress me in terms of socio-political necessity. Unless one is blacklisted him/herself, it is difficult to feel the injustice, and illogic, behind such hatred.

“Right now films are being made to craftily glorify MARXISM, UNESCO and ONE-WORLDISM… and via your TV set they are being piped into your living room – and are poisoning the minds of your children under your very eyes.” , opens the official anti-communist propaganda of the Joseph McCarthy era. Point to be noted is the alignment of Marxism, UNESCO and one-worldism. Surely, this was the time of racism, and all other types of discrimination, too. The celebration of WASP – White Anglo Saxon Protestant – and the American big-brotherhood in the aftermath of the WWII was the dominant ideology fed to the American public.

Like any other machinery, ideology needs oil and fuel. Culture drives ideology smoothly, as well as regenerates it everyday with some mutations. Sixty years ago, the sharpest tool for such propaganda was cinema (today, for the urban population, it is social media - Facebook and Whatsapp, of course.) Hence, the target for such anti-national activities was the dissenting factions of Hollywood. Chaplin was the bull’s eye; so much so that he had to immigrate to Switzerland. However, one among the ten major blacklisted, Dalton Trumbo, the future Screenwriter for Roman Holiday (1953), hit back, even after serving a term in prison for eleven months, in the federal penitentiary, in Kentucky. Trumbo came back to LA to invade the system which made him, and several others, traitors in the eyes of the rest of the nation.
Trumbo writing non-stop

Trumbo is the story of the fight back of a practical man. “The character would say, in the film, “The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus. But, the rich guy wins with the cunningness of Satan”, to his colleague and would-be fellow-prisoner Rocco (played by David Maldonado). 

While watching the film, the question that recurrently came to mind was how much savings a screenwriter could possibly have. Even a topnotch screenwriter like Dalton Trumbo? To suatain himself, and his family, just economically? Comeback of the blacklisted through vicarious writing in the name of others, and even fictitious writers; working for B-studios and B-movies; changing the face of some studios to their unintended audience; fixing garbage scripts ‘because they might have some good story in them’ – it is never easy even for the most prolific writer like Isaac Asimov. Writing fifteen hours or more, sitting on the typewriter, seven days a week, for years on, was the only way that someone like Trumbo could show the system its own face.
Trumbo and others with their families before they go to prison
The erstwhile Hollywood majority, including John Wayne’s notorious role in hunting down the ‘commie’ sympathizers – the Russian spies, created a kind of nationalism in rise similar to what we see in India today. (In an interesting way, John Wayne both negated his active role in this witch-hunting and justified the action, later in his life. Watch it on YouTube:  

House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) acted, functionally, in ways similar to the witch hunting carried out by different official and unofficial bodies of Indian right-wing observers. In the wake of the growing intolerance, the whispers of anti-national programs on rise, and reactions to all these, Trumbo would strike multiple chords with the Indian audience, if marketed in the right context.
Trumbo refusing to answer question put by the Congress
The erstwhile industry structure, the heydays of studio system along with its hierarchy and different entities known by the genres and stars they represent, and the power of tinsel town gossip, along with the federal government's inquisition of the deviating voice of any refractory individual in the field of mass communication are inlined as the backdrop, and sometimes the causal connections, to the Trumbo story. Especially, the figure of Hedda Hopper, the mini star turned gossip columnist of the LA Times, present the case of gossip mongering. 

In a way, the ten Hollywood blacklisters, along with thousands of directly hit communicators, government employees, intellectuals, teachers and blue collar workers and their millions of sympathizers were jailed, fired from job, socially ostracized or threatened in various ways, by some kind of gossip mongering. It was apparitions of anti-national sentiments that hung in the air, that helped journalists like Heda Hopper who could provoke the law-keepers to paranoia to meet her own sadistic pleasure for creating and enjoying perpetuating gossips destroying other peoples' careers and lives. Her contemporaries named it Heda Hell.
Trumbo and Heda Hopper
Bryan Cranston has already garnered a nomination in the Oscar race. His portrayal of the genius screenwriter who goes through an ordeal, and a hellishly hectic comeback to be able to stand on the dais of the Award Ceremony of the Screenwriters’ Association in the end, to address the community and face the issue of social ostracization for no real crime committed, passes multiple shivers through our bones.
Trumbo finishing bound feature length scripts in 3 days thanks to family
A filmmaker, screenwriter, working through all hazards, to make a comeback, winning two Academy Awards under false names, just to get a chance to deliver a speech – that is Trumbo, James Dalton Trumbo. The film hikes the point that sometimes it is necessary to retreat strategically, sometimes it is necessary to join hands with the class enemy, but you cannot retreat. Finally, we find, along with Trumbo, that there is no hero or villain; everyone was a victim of the system.

But, the system’s  fault lines can be found, and addressed.
Trumbo with his youngest daughter Mitzi
Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below. As always your insightful comments are highly appreciated!

Trumbo (2015) Trailer

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