Many Americans joined the Communist Party during the Depression of the nineteen-thirties and the fight against fascism in the forties, but once the Second World War was over and won, the Soviet Union replaced Germany and Japan as the perceived threat to their nation, and that left the Communists in a difficult position. This was down to the political philosophy being regarded as essentially anti-American, with the result that many powerful interests wished to criminalise such thinking, though there remained those who were still dedicated to the pursuit of equality in society as they saw it. One such person was Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), and when it was revealed Communists had written popular movies, all hell broke loose...
At least it was hell for those who found themselves answering questions of the Committee that sought to root out the "unfriendly" citizens in Hollywood, who found themselves in a nation that had previously had no problem with them pursuing their lines of work pretty much being criminalised for thinking the wrong way, according to forces that were ironically verging on the fascism that they had claimed to be fighting not so long ago. That said, what was not pointed out here was there really were Communist spies in The U.S.A., just as there were American spies in the Soviet Union, so the fear was there for a reason, not simply a bunch of right wing maniacs taking over the hearts and minds of the public for their own selfish gains.
Although that was doubtless a part of the situation as well, but with Trumbo director Jay Roach, previously responsible for comedies on the big screen such as the Austin Powers series, at the helm, the sympathies were entirely with its title character who was painted in rather saintly fashion, his bad temper his only concession to him possibly being unreasonable and his entirely justified opinion that there were no Moscow spies making Hollywood movies the main engine. Cranston was given an Oscar nomination for his trouble, but it was far from his best performance as he simply set his acting to "irascible" and let John McNamara's script run through him, much as the other stars did, most of them essaying real people or at least composites of the same. The trouble with that was that many were supposed to be inhabiting well-known people, and there were differences to be seen.
Obviously not many nowadays would know what the real Dalton Trumbo was like, and on watching the clip of the man himself over the end credits it seemed Cranston didn't exactly nail his personality, but when you had portrayals of John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson or Kirk Douglas who had such distinctive personas and the ones here were far from convincing, you were in trouble. Indeed, the whole enterprise had the air of a television movie, or worse a feature length sketch show parody only without the laughs, as Roach had his serious hat on. Time and again a scene would arise supposedly depicting some historical event and you would be forced to ponder how artificial it all looked, not least because it had a shaky grasp on what it should have been doing to bring its tale to life.
Therefore Helen Mirren would enter scenes as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper like the Wicked Witch of the West, all she needed was a broomstick to swoop in on and the illusion would be complete, as the villains were far too cartoonish and the actual politics of the Blacklist were glossed over in favour of some too-vague human rights agenda. Where it did score was in its conveying the injustice of being accused of something that was not only an exercise of your freedom, that was allowing yourself to hold your own opinions as long as they were not actively endangering anyone, but getting subjected to the blind ignorance of those who have not thought their own opinions through and cannot see that they have effectively turned into the villains they believed they were fighting against. All very well, but injustice isn't too much of a stretch to make an audience feel in a movie, and the more involved ethics and tenets that were clashing back then were ill-served by this biopic's simplifications, no matter how well-intentioned it was. Music by Theodore Shapiro.