"Are you or have you ever been a member of the communist party?"
That was the question asked by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) at congressional hearings. And the question doesn't stop there. They want names; they want people subpoenaed to name names.
"Trumbo" chronicles the life of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), one of Tinseltown's most successful and highest paid screenwriters in the 1940s and 1950s. It's a dark time in Hollywood and American history; the Red Scare period post-World War II where thousands and thousands of people suspected for or believed in communism are targeted unjustly. Some jailed for not committing any crime, but simply for holding such political ideology. Dalton Trumbo is one of them.
The hostile air blows wide, fanned by an influential gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, wickedly played by dramatically dressed Helen Mirren ("RED," "The Debt"). With powerful connections, Hedda makes certain that Dalton and his colleagues are fired from and blacklisted by studios, which means that they would never be able to work again as screenwriters.
Lives are in shambles. Destroyed careers, broken families, ruined friendships and shunned by the paranoid society. Dalton, for his part of refusing to testify at the hearing, is hauled to jail in contempt of Congress, along with a number of producers, directors and writers. They're dubbed as the Hollywood Ten. One particular scene in prison is so disgraceful that it makes your heart stop in disbelief.
After serving 10 months in federal prison, Dalton is released. Back in the world, life is never the same. While he's fortunate to have his family intact, he realizes he has to earn a living. So why not doing the one thing he loves to do most? Writing. Dalton knows he can write; he just can't put his name on paper or publicly gets paid for it.
Even branded as a traitor, Dalton never lets darkness dims his survivor spirit. He has a perpetual sense of optimism and idealism, even when the systems or the people fail him. And he has the smarts to reinvent himself and navigates his way around.
Dalton starts ghostwriting for other writers, working for a fraction of his fees for B-rated producers (John Goodman, Roger Bart) producing movies starring A-list stars. Even more fascinating, he establishes a homebased screenwriting business, working with other unemployed screenwriters and cranking out script after script.
With the help of his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane, "Man of Steel," "Under the Tuscan Sun") Dalton operates under multiple pseudonyms and delivers scripts discreetly. His oldest daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning, "Maleficent," "Super 8"), stands out as the one who pushes him back into the spotlight. And thankfully, his wife, while loyal, is no wallflower herself. The family scenes, even with squabbles, are heartwarming.
The shenanigan eventually pays off, with films like "The Roman Holiday," "The Brave One," "The Exodus" and "Spartacus" grace the silver screen, furtively netting Dalton two Oscars. Whilst the golden statues are undoubtedly a validation of his talent, more importantly, there's an illuminating light at the end of the warped tunnel. When a famous actor and director back him up, there's no more hiding.
Cranston lifts the film with his performance. One may think that with such a heavy subject, "Trumbo" is a drab movie. On the contrary, it is oddly delightful. Dalton Trumbo could have appeared as a caricature had it not been portrayed skillfully and sprightly. Like the bathtub scenes, where the chain-smoking writer props up a wooden table over the tub and types away, digging in for booze and pills from time to time.
"Trumbo" is a movie about Hollywood, but the importance can never be understated. A blemished chapter in the American history, it is astonishing how un-American the entire racket was. The land of the free repressing the freedom of expression and infringing upon its citizens' constitutional rights. The news reel throughout the picture help transport us back to the era. Stay through the credit and watch a clip of the real Dalton Trumbo's interview.
If you're into the movies scene, politics and civil liberties, you'll enjoy the film's history lesson, old-fashioned Hollywood feel, witty wordsmithery and joie de vivre spirit.