TRUMBO

If you’ve spent any time on the University of Colorado Boulder’s campus, you probably noticed the courtyard fountain next to the University Memorial Center—the kind of courtyard where couples take their engagement photos and children play on hot summer days. You might’ve even noticed the small plaque on the south pillar, dedicating it to Dalton Trumbo: CU student, distinguished film writer, and lifelong advocate of the First Amendment.

Born Dec. 9, 1905, in Montrose, Colorado, James Dalton Trumbo attended Grand Junction High School and two years at CU before moving on to Southern California, where a successful career as a novelist segued into one as an A-list Hollywood screenwriter—the highest-paid screenwriter at the time. But his career was muddied and almost destroyed by Trumbo’s political standings as a communist.

When Trumbo joined the communist party, fascism was the enemy, and the U.S.’s alignment with Russia made everything hunky-dory. Coming out of World War II, it was a different story. Communists were persona non grata, and Trumbo, a rich man, simply didn’t understand. He was the kind of guy who looked at his private lake and wondered why everyone shouldn’t have such a nice lake. Trumbo’s friends—also wealthy—knew why. There aren’t enough lakes to go around.

The ensuing witch hunt from the House on Un-American Activities Committee was ugly, and in 1947, Trumbo and nine others were blacklisted from Hollywood. A few years later, in 1950, Trumbo served 11 months in a Kentucky federal prison for contempt. When the unemployable writer was released, he did the only thing he could do, he wrote.

Trumbo wrote Roman Holiday and slapped another writer’s name on it. Then he wrote The Brave One under a pseudonym. He won an Oscar for both. The blacklist made work tough to come by for Trumbo, but not for Robert Rich, Sally Stubblefield, or any number of pseudonyms that Trumbo used for The King Brothers, a Z-movie production company. Trumbo wrote hard and fast, most of it schlock for a schlock movie studio, but Trumbo turned out a few gems.

Years passed, and the blacklist weakened. Kirk Douglas used his star power to get Trumbo’s name back on the screen as the author of Spartacus—from a novel by another blacklisted writer, Howard Fast—and when President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed picket lines to see the movie, the death-nail to the blacklist was finally dealt.

Dalton Trumbo is an exemplary American: hard-working, stubborn, arrogant, and idealistic. While this information finds its way into Trumbo—the 2015 biopic from director Jay Roach with Bryan Cranston in the lead role—it fails to do so in any compelling manner. The broad strokes are there, but Trumbo is marred by celebrity stunt casting, cheesy stump speeches, flat cinematography, and faux newsreel footage that looks like the video you watch before boarding the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland.

There are bright spots: John Goodman, as ruthless movie producer Frank King, gets all the good lines, Helen Mirren is wickedly evil as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and when Cranston isn’t slumped over or giving grand speeches, he does a good enough job with Trumbo. But it is a caricature, not a performance, and Trumbo is just a bland information-delivery device.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Trumbo (2015)
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara
Based on the book of the same name by Bruce Cook
Produced by Kevin Kelly Brown, Monica Levinson, Michael London, Nimitt Mankad, John McNamara, Shivani Rawat, Jay Roach, Janice Williams
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Michael Stuhlbarg, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning
Bleecker Street, Rated R, Running time 124 minutes, Opened Nov. 27, 2015.



A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 16, “Meet Dalton Trumbo.”