Saturday, December 12, 2015
Trumbo is a civics lesson, but it’s a very entertaining one. The life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) feels like a passion project for director Jay Roach, who is helped enormously by a game and talented cast. Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and best paid screenwriters in the late 1940’s, just at the time when Congress was looking for Communist influence in the movie industry. Trumbo’s refusal to disavow Communist Party membership or name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee led to his jailing and the beginning of the blacklist. “The Hollywood Ten” - Trumbo and a group of other writers including Arlen Hird (a composite character played by Louis C.K.) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) - couldn’t work and were forced to write schlock movies under pseudonyms for the likes of producer Frank King (a very funny John Goodman). Roach and writer John McNamara have fun with Hollywood conservatives of the period; Helen Mirren makes a cold Hedda Hopper and ex-TV leading man David James Elliott caricatures John Wayne. But the film’s heart is with Trumbo, his colleagues, and his family. Diane Lane is underused as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, but when she finally gets a scene of confrontation with her husband she makes the most of it. The same goes for Elle Fanning as the oldest Trumbo daughter; Lane and Fanning’s strength gives Cranston something to play against.
Bryan Cranston is good at playing arrogant men, but as Trumbo he’s allowed to show flashes of wit, intelligence, and kindness that those who only know him from Breaking Bad may not have seen. McNamara’s script doesn’t elide the fact that the B-movie script mill Trumbo set up took a toll on his family, but it also kept his friends in work. Louis C.K.’s Arlen Hird (the most politically rigid character in Trumbo) points out an irony the film celebrates, which is that Trumbo was a man of genuine principles who also thoroughly enjoyed the attention and money that the movies offered. If there were ever moments of doubt, the film’s version of Trumbo doesn’t mention them. As more famous Hollywood liberals like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) are forced to betray themselves, Trumbo keeps working to the point of exhaustion. Dalton Trumbo won two pseudonymous Oscars during the blacklist - including one for Roman Holiday - and after a decade of struggling his talent enabled him to reclaim his identity thanks to the intervention of producer/star Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) on Spartacus. The film concludes with a speech Trumbo (who died in 1976 at age 70) gave to the Writers Guild, one which Cranston plays beautifully as acknowledgement of all that was lost during a time when America turned on itself. Trumbo is a message movie, and the message is this: We survived, but just barely.