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Brilliant blacklist biopic

Trumbo is an outstanding film on a survivor of the Hollywood witch-hunts, says ALAN FRANK

Trumbo (15)
Directed by Jay Roach

IN THE 1940s writer Dalton Trumbo, whose credits included landmark films like the Oscar-nominated classic Kitty Foyle and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, signed a deal with MGM making him the highest-paid screenwriter in the world.

But in 1947 Trumbo, a member of the Communist Party since 1943 and a political activist who supported trade unions, the fight for equal pay and civil rights, fell victim to McCarthyism.

He refused, with nine other key Hollywood figures, to testify in front of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

The so-called Hollywood Ten were held in contempt of Congress.

Trumbo served 11 months in jail and when released, unable to get work for the next 13 years, had to resort to writing pseudonymous low-budget trash screenplays and acting as a “front” for other blacklisted screenwriters.

His unjustified fall ended when Kirk Douglas finally credited him for his Spartacus screenplay and director Oscar Preminger named him as having written Exodus.

That context is what make this biopic’s vivid exposure of Tinseltown’s sleazy, profit-driven and political underside so powerful as well as entertaining.

It’s ironic that the film’s released in Britain as Hollywood preens itself over the upcoming Oscars, awards that all too often tend to have as much to do about self-promotion and maximising box-office takings as about the art of film on both sides of the camera.

That said, Bryan Cranston — a superb actor rather than just a star — has deservedly earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Trumbo who, after being told: “You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy,” finally proves the insult to be totally wrong.

His compelling performance vividly blends drama — his grim induction into jail is particularly memorable — and he scores strongly as a family man, a political protester and, reassuringly for writers of a certain age, he types with two fingers.

His magnificent portrayal crowns a superb supporting cast, among them John Goodman’s comic portrait of exploitation movie producer Frank “We make shit!” King, Michael Stuhlbarg’s ultimately cowardly Edward G Robinson and Helen Mirren, superb as the viciously right-wing, anti-semitic and two-faced superbitch, Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper.

Dean O’Gorman makes his mark too, with an enjoyable Kirk Douglas impression.

John McNamara’s screenplay, based on Bruce Cook’s book Dalton Trumbo, skillfully combines drama and acid political comment into a fascinating whole which is peppered with sharp dialogue, memorably Kirk Douglas’s comment, apropos Spartacus, that he had “never had a director who is a bigger pain in the ass than Stanley Kubrick.”

There’s a screenwriter genuinely willing to take risks.

Director Jay Roach, best known for the Austin Powers farces, does a fine job, making what seems at first simply another Hollywood biopic far more potent.

Its sharp and depressing political meta-text cleverly combines effective contemporary black-and-white newsreel footage of Richard Nixon, self-serving Senator Joseph McCarthy, Humphrey Bogart and Robert Taylor with recreated stars like John Wayne.

Not to be missed.


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