The period remembered as the "McCarthy era" was a low period in US history when Democracy came to be redefined: American citizens were free to be anything they wanted except Communists (there was also the issue of Black Rights, but that's a story for another day, another movie). Hollywood screen-writer Donald Trumbo was one of many high-profile individuals who were jailed for their beliefs. After he was paroled Trumbo supported his family by writing scripts for schlock movies under a series of aliases; he also produced solid gold scripts for mainstream pictures, one of which (Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck) embarrassingly won an Oscar.
Bryan Cranston delivers a blistering, if slightly pantomime performance as Trumbo and deserves to win an irony-rich Oscar of his own this month. Many stars and studio heads of the 40s and 50s are engagingly impersonated here: John Wayne, Otto Preminger and Louis B. Meyer are given particular prominence along with Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee and paid a deservedly high price. Dean O'Gorman is uncannily good as Kirk Douglas, who played a key role in restoring Trumbo's reputation. Helen Mirren, in a cavalcade of bizarre hats, is uncannily awful as arch Commie-hater Hedda Hopper, with an accent that swerves erratically between the Fuehrerbunker and (oh dear) Buckingham Palace. John Goodman is larger than lifesize (which means seriously big!) as the penny-pinching studio head who expects scripts in days (even hours) rather than weeks.
|Dean O'Gorman recreates Kirk Douglas's role in Spartacus|
The pressures on Trumbo's family are well explored but the domestic scenes - and the celebrity roll-call - give the movie a soap-opera sheen that often veers into romcom humour. The true tragedy of the 'witch-hunts' gets only a brief mention: there were suicides as well as prison terms, and not every Hollywood Red was able to carry on working under a pseudonym. The big hole in the story is the ideological one: we don't get to understand why Trumbo and the others feel such a commitment to the cause of Communism; supporting striking carpenters doesn't seem enough. And from the Administration side, we see the Rosenbergs getting death sentences for selling atomic secrets to the Soviets, but was that the only motivation for the great 'purge'?
So: a good movie, witty and entertaining, full of fun caricatures of yesteryear celebrities (even Mirren's duff take on la Hopper is joyful in a 'Carry-On' sort of way), but a little too glossy and shallow to truly shine a light into America's mid-20th-century Dark Age.