Whether it’s Woody Allen’s The Front, Robert De Niro’s Guilty by Suspicion, Jim Carrey’s The Majestic or the recent Hail Caesar!, most of Hollywood’s attempts to depict one of its most shameful chapters have done so from the safe distance of a fictional setting. Trumbo on the other hand presents us with a real-life character, one of the infamous Hollywood Ten who would eventually play a leading role in ending the blacklist. Yet despite being set at a time when passions ran high on both sides, this film is a strangely passionless affair.
Perhaps it’s because the title character remains so aloof, treating friend and foe alike with similar contempt. Certainly not much sympathy is elicited for any of the supporting players, each existing to provide an example of the blacklist’s victims. Apart from Trumbo there is the committed Communist who loses everything; the front uncomfortable with taking credit for someone’s work; and the principled actor who faces a crisis of conscience.
In this role Michael Stuhlbarg avoids attempting Edward G. Robinson’s often mimicked voice, as does Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas. David James Elliot, on the other hand, not only handles John Wayne’s familiar drawl with aplomb, but does so without reducing the Duke to a caricature.
As the title character, Bryan Cranston gives a fine performance as Trumbo. But it remains a performance, once more limiting the opportunity to emotionally invest in the character.
Trumbo and J. Parnell Thomas did not serve time in the same prison. It was actually two other members of the Hollywood Ten, Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr, who were amongst the ex-Congressman's fellow inmates.
Arlen Hird is a composite character based on some of the members of the Hollywood Ten, including John Howard Lawson (who was named by Edward G. Robinson as 'the commissar') and Samuel Ornitz (who died of cancer).
Buddy Ross is a fictional character.
Biopic features three movies within a movie. However, the opening movie doesn’t exist (Edward G. Robinson portrayed a farmer, not a gangster, in the Trumbo-penned Our Vines Have Tender Grapes) and the John Wayne movie screened to prison inmates is a figment of the screenwriter John McNamara’s imagination. The only true scene recreation is Spartacus, which intercuts footage from the original film with close-ups of Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas.