In the 1940s, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is one of the highest paid screenwriters in the world, penning movie classics including the Oscar-nominated Kitty Foyle and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. A fixture on the Hollywood social scene, and a political activist supporting labor unions, equal pay and civil rights, Trumbo and his colleagues are subpoenaed to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as part of its sweeping probe into communist activity in the U.S. Trumbo’s refusal to answer the congressmen’s questions lands him in a federal prison and earns him the eternal enmity of powerful anti-communist gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren).
For the next 13 years, all of the major Hollywood studios refuse to hire Trumbo for fear of being associated with his perceived radical political views. Forced to sell his home and ostracized by friends, colleagues and neighbours, Trumbo struggles to feed his family by writing mostly low-budget movies under assumed names. But he never gives up fighting for what he believes in. Ultimately, Trumbo prevails when star Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger each put the screenwriter’s real name on screen in their respective 1960 blockbusters, Spartacus and Exodus, effectively bringing the blacklist era to an end.
In the wake of World War II, as relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. deteriorated and the fear of the “Red Menace” reached unprecedented heights, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated tens of thousands of Americans suspected of being communist sympathizers. Teachers, military contractors, civil servants, and others lost their jobs, their reputations and even their families as suspicion and paranoia swept the nation.
HUAC paid special attention to Hollywood, convening hearings in October 1947 aimed at rooting out communists in the film industry. Scores of prominent actors, directors, producers and screenwriters were publicly berated about their association with an array of organizations deemed to be “un-American.” Threatened with the loss of their livelihoods, many witnesses gave evidence against friends and colleagues. Ten of those called to testify refused to answer any questions, denying the committee’s right to ask them about their political beliefs and denouncing the hearings as a violation of their civil rights. All ten were sentenced to prison for contempt of Congress. The best-known among them was Dalton Trumbo.
Born in the tiny Colorado town of Montrose, Trumbo came to Los Angeles in 1925 with his parents and sisters to find financial stability. His father’s death made him the family breadwinner when he was only 21. He worked in a bakery, but his passion for writing drove him to produce articles and stories printed in Vanity Fair, the Saturday Evening Post and the Hollywood Spectator. Balancing financial responsibilities with his creative aspirations inspired a lifelong sympathy for working people and a deep understanding of the inequalities of class and privilege.”
Brilliant, ambitious and contentious, Trumbo enjoyed exposing what he perceived as the world’s hypocrisy and injustices in his films, from Academy Award-winners Roman Holiday and The Brave One – both written under pseudonyms during his 13-year exile from Hollywood – to the blockbusters Spartacus and Exodus, which revitalized his career and marked the beginning of the end of the blacklist.
Screenwriter John McNamara first heard the story of Dalton Trumbo when he was studying screenwriting under formerly blacklisted scribes Ring Lardner Jr., Waldo Salt and Trumbo supporter Ian McClellan Hunter. “I told Hunter how much I enjoyed his screenplay for Roman Holiday,” McNamara says. “He told me that he didn’t write the script. Dalton Trumbo did.”