'Trumbo' Terrific but Fated to Flop

Bryan Cranston in "Trumbo." Bleecker Street

Updated | The first thing to know about the movie Trumbo is that it could come with a trigger warning for smokers and ex-smokers. Almost every scene is filmed through a haze or plume of smoke, and the coffin nails define and sicken the chain-smoking characters. Yes, we get it: Smoking kills. But they didn't know that yet, and they look pretty happy.

Beside the smokes, there are other fun period effects in this movie about the Cold War era's Hollywood blacklist, among them: Hedda Hopper's crazy 1940s flower and fruit hats; grainy black-and-white footage of politicians saying stupid things at congressional hearings; and an inspiring 1940s jazz soundtrack. But none of these can conceal that this movie is about an idea, an important idea, and therefore, probably, is destined to flop, even though Americans ought to be forced, Clockwork Orange-like, to watch it with their eyelids propped open.

It's not torture to watch a piece of history that everyone should remember and talk about, especially now, in the era of Gitmo, Patriot Act mass surveillance and Republican House committees looking for left wing conspiracies behind every State Department email and climate science report. We should remember that in other eras when we have been afflicted with mass hysteria, paranoid America, arguably the best defended nation on the planet, has turned inward in looking for enemies, gone witch-hunting as surely as the people of Salem. In the 1940s, the witch hunters found in films conspiracies that they though would corrupt and "bring about the overthrow of this nation."

In its zeal to turn up communists under the rocks at the State Department and in the military, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) also turned its attention for a while to a more attention-getting quarry: Hollywood communists. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was one of the so-called Hollywood Ten who refused to testify to the HUAC about their politics. He and some of the others went to jail for a time, and all were blacklisted, forced to work under pseudonyms—if at all—until 1960, when director Otto Preminger and actor Kirk Douglas courageously broke the blacklist by separately announcing Trumbo was writing their films Exodus and Spartacus.

This is important stuff to think about, but I felt an awful sense of pity almost as soon as the movie started to roll. The film won't flop due to the acting, which is led by the excellent Bryan Cranston, best known as a craggy-faced chemistry teacher turned meth gangster. Cranston here dappers down very believably into another sort of eccentric altogether—bow-tied, mustachioed and elegant, and given to speaking, as one character put it, "as though his words were going to be carved in rock." He is especially fun to watch while playing his character writing in the bathtub, fueled by the aforementioned smokes (his in a holder), whiskey and Benzedrine.

It also won't fail because of the supporting actors, including John Goodman, his face now a sagging, serving platter size pudding of lard, as the low-rent film producer who hires the blacklisted Trumbo, saving his family; Helen Mirren, a viper as Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist who exhorted Reagan and John Wayne to weed out the Red Menace in their community; Louis C.K. as Trumbo's younger, lower-class acolyte, afflicted with lung cancer, who loses a lung and continues to chain smoke the one that's left into final submission; and Diane Lane, as Trumbo's smart, devoted wife and mother to the children, all of whom suffer as the title character goes from being the best paid screenwriter in Hollywood—$4,000 a week in the 1940s was a fortune—to self-exile in Mexico City (the film actually depicts him living in L.A.), writing under pseudonyms and making a fraction of his former pay.

The characters are based on some funny, extremely witty men, like the fictional Arlan Hird—played by Louis C.K.—who, when asked by the HUAC if he planned to tell them whether he was a member of the Communist Party, replied: "Yes, but first I have to ask my doctor. I need to know if he can surgically remove my conscience."

It's an intensely timely film, coming on the heels of the spectacle of the Benghhazi hearings and the 11-hour grilling of a former secretary of state by a bunch of—let's face it—know-nothings from the provinces. This movie reminds us that all this has happened before, on a grander scale.

All good. But only those who really care about this subject are likely to buy a ticket and sit through it. There's something insular about it, a little too Hollywood loving itself and celebrating what heroes once we were. There probably is a way to tell a compelling, dramatic story to make average Americans sit up and notice how terrible it is that we commit hari kiri on our own civil liberties every time we feel threatened. The travails of a group of Hollywood writers and actors might not be that story. Trumbo, like last year's Birdman, has an air of film industry inside-baseball. It's hard to imagine average American movie-goers getting behind a guy who writes great movies from the bathtub. But maybe.

In any case, its heart is definitely in the right place, as are its politics. "There are," Trumbo says at one point, "many angry and ignorant people in this world and they seem to be breeding in record numbers." Amen to that.

Trumbo and his family survived the blacklist and he eventually thrived again in Hollywood, winning numerous awards before his death at age 70 of a heart attack in 1976. It was 2011 before the Writers Guild of America announced that he deserved full credit for the Academy Award-winning screenplay he wrote under a pseudonym for 1953's Roman Holiday, the romantic comedy with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

At a Manhattan lunch for the filmmakers and actors before a screening of the film, a once-blacklisted writer, Walter Bernstein, joined a panel. "A lot of bad things went on," said Bernstein, 96, reminiscing about years of unemployment and having people follow him and go through his garbage. "Our country has a history. Whenever there's an explicit or implicit threat, we attack our civil liberties."

The idea of this film is that the right to believe what we want to believe and to speak freely is the bedrock of the American enterprise. The periodic assaults on that right should always be remembered, for us to know history in order not to repeat it.

Correction: This article originally misspelled the last name of Arlan Hird's last name and failed to mention he is a fictional character.