Last week we caught a rewatch of the Coen Brothers rather excellent Hail, Caesar, which is probably best described as a quirky take on the Hollywood of the late 1940s and early 1950s, if that era was telling the story itself. It's sharp, and tongue-in-cheek and I suspect there is a lot of gags I don't get at the expense of Hollywood fixtures of the period, although I certainly got a few, not least thanks to the excellent You Must Remember This podcast which covers the period. In a serendipidous moment, the movie we had for this week also covers the same period, that of the Blacklist, and the late "Golden Age", Trumbo.
Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter and one of the first wave of Hollywood "pinkos" summoned before the House UnAmerican Activies Committee (pre-McCarthy) and later jailed for refusing to answer it's questioned. He was also a prominent figure on the Hollywood Blacklist, and became important in it's breaking, ultimatley writing the screenplay for Spartacus in defiance of right-wing protests. Trumbo flits through the era covering all of this, and his underground writing syndicate that produced at least two Oscar wins, trying to remain fairly breezy as it tries to hit an awful lot of marks.
There are a lot of stories in the Blacklist era, and it's a period Hollywood hasn't really gone directly back to much, preferring to deal with it through analogy, and leave all the nastiness behind it. Trumbo is careful around some the legends - Reagan is mentioned but never seen, Wayne is honorable if misguided, and Louis B Meyer (as our proxy for all studio heads) is sympathetically portrayed. The real villiany is reserved for Helen Mirrens viciously unpleasant Hedda Hopper, played with gusto but little complexity.
Our hero, of course, is Trumbo himself, played by Bryan Cranston. He's protrayed with a warmth and sympathy, but also a sense that he may have been difficult to live and work with, with Louis CK's stand-in character voicing the doubts and competing principles of other Blacklistees. It's Cranstons's film throughout, despite some great turns from the supporting cast (John Goodman a standout, as he usually is) and manages to balance pathos and comedy by turns. What I'm not sure about is that we get a lot of depth; with so much ground to cover this supporting cast does tend to get lost in the weeds.
I enjoyed Trumbo a lot, but I must admit it left me slightly unsatisfied. This is a fascinating period is US cultural history, a period that reverberates right through into the 70s and 80s (and probably beyond) and it's really unexplored in the very medium that it affects. What Trumbo feels like is an excellent ice-breaker, maybe a warm up for more films or TV to tell this story in the same sort of easily engaged, non-polemical way, and I hope that it does.