There can be no question that the Hollywood Blacklist, which came about as a result of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950s, represents the most shameful period in the industry’s history. So many talented people lost their careers — and more — after being accused of being a communist during a hysterical period in the U.S. when the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy conducted nothing less than a witch hunt with strong political motivations. The new film Trumbo puts it all in perspective for contemporary audiences who may recognize this kind of thing is still going on today in different forms.

pete hammond review badgeThe focus here is a personal one: the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, whose political activities got him blacklisted by the business and even landed him in prison for a while. Trumbo could not write under his own name and thus won Oscars for such films as Roman Holiday and The Brave One that he couldn’t accept. Others “fronted” for him and only many years later did he receive formal acknowledgement from the Academy and the studios for the work he actually did during the blacklist period. (It wasn’t until 1960 when actor-producer Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger effectively ended the blacklist by putting Trumbo’s name on Spartacus   and Exodus.)  As I say in my VIDEO REVIEW (click the link above) this whole sad tale is told beautifully in the hugely entertaining, revealing and powerful portrait of this great screenwriter and many of his colleagues who suffered at the hands of the industry which effectively turned its back on them in a time of trumped-up fear.

Be aware though that director Jay Roach and screenwriter John McNamara have not made a depressing film at all. In fact, Trumbo is in some ways an almost bigger-than-life colorful movie about the movies. A screen triumph for all involved, it is especially Bryan Cranston’s magnificent work in the title role that towers over everything. He gets Trumbo’s cadence down perfectly, but better than that, he really gets to the essence of this great artist who, though certainly controversial in his time, really tried to lead his friends and colleagues out of the darkness in a period when that wasn’t easy to do. The toll it took on him and his family is not sugar-coated here either.

The entire cast is aces. Helen Mirren really nails the ultra-right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who tried to coerce studios into shunning anyone even suspected of communist ties. She really knew how to put fear into the machine that ran this business. I loved John Goodman turning in another fun portrait of a Hollywood figure. He plays Frank King, a B-movie schlockmeister who hires blacklisted writers to give his cinematic crap a touch of style. Some of his scenes are priceless. The large cast includes a fine Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife; Elle Fanning as the most sensitive of his kids; Louis C.K. as a blacklisted colleague; and some very fine turns from actors playing well-known figures of the time including David James Elliott as John Wayne, Christian Berkel as Preminger, Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Edward G. Robinson (who turned on his one-time friends during a committee hearing), and a dead-on Dean O’Gorman as Douglas.

Rest assured that Trumbo does not come off as some Hollywood history lesson you take like castor oil. In Roach’s hands and thanks to a fine script, it really turns this story into a compelling and completely absorbing entertainment that also happens to have something of value to say. It’s one of the year’s must-see pictures.

Kevin Kelly Brown, Michael London, Monica Levinson, Nimitt Mankad, Shivani Rawit, Janice Williams and McNamara are credited as producers for the Bleecker Street release, which has its L.A. premiere next week and opens November 6. It world premiered last month at the Toronto Film Festival.

Do you plan to see Trumbo? Let us know what you think.