8.5 out of 10
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo
Diane Lane as Cleo Trumbo
Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper
Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird
Elle Fanning as Nikola Trumbo
John Goodman as Frank King
Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson
Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas
Roger Bart as Buddy Ross
David James Elliott as John Wayne
John Getz as Sam Wood
Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger
Richard Portnow as Louis B. Mayer
Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is a respected and successful writer in Hollywood in the late 1940s until his career faces derailment when he is blacklisted as a result of his refusal to testify before the now-infamous House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) about his membership in the American Communist Party. In an attempt to subvert the blacklist, Trumbo finds sneaky ways to get his scripts made into films despite being unable to take credit for them.
If you are into history—American history or Hollywood history in particular—this semi-biopic of the famous screenwriter will be right up your alley. And, if you are a fan of “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston, you will be doubly pleased, as he gives a studied, nuanced performance that is sure to put him in the center of Academy Awards conversations later this season.
In Trumbo one learns of the screenwriters’ journey from Hollywood favorite son to black sheep and back again, as the “blacklist” period in Hollywood history sidelined artists that were suspected of sympathizing with communist views. Steadfast that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects an individual’s right to his private views without facing professional consequences, Trumbo plots to bring down the odious repression of the blacklist by an elaborate scheme wherein he ghostwrites scripts using fictional pen names.
In the process, the screenwriter penned movies as famous as Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday, and 1956’s The Brave One, both of which netted him Academy Awards after the blacklist had become extinct, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s epic Spartacus. His career also led him into encounters or relationships with Edward G. Robinson (himself a target of HUAC), Kirk Douglas (who proves pivotal in helping Trumbo eradicate the blacklist), John Wayne (one of the film’s main antagonist), and the famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by a deliciously evil Helen Mirren.
The movie works because Dalton Trumbo is presented as a robust, complex, and sometimes self-involved and egotistical man, who had his heart in the right place but whose genius sometimes made him insufferable. As he crusades in secret to thumb his nose at the blacklist, he inflicts pain on many of those close to him, including his wife (a somewhat flat Diane Lane) and daughter (a vivacious Elle Fanning). The study is nevertheless not impossibly serious, with humor—courtesy mostly of the always reliable John Goodman—appearing alongside tragic lows, including a stint in prison by Trumbo and his excoriation by Hollywood elites, and the public.
Along the importance of the subject matter, it is delightful and exciting to witness on-screen depictions of legendary figures like Wayne and Douglas. The filmmakers also successfully use real life archival footage of the HUAC proceedings, interspersed with their own dramatization.
If there is any criticism to be leveled at Trumbo it’s that, like in most biopics of this sort, the familiar pattern of exile followed by ultimate vindication plays out predictably in the film. This is the typical narrative arc of countless other movies about once-maligned but now-rehabilitated historical figures, and Trumbo does not deviate significantly from it.
Beyond that, however, the acting is superb, the story is interesting and important to remember, and the production values are unassailable. (What’s with all the 1950s art direction in this year’s movies?) Most importantly, Trumbo reminds us that while it may take a village to raise a child (or a nation), and another village to threaten its core values, it can sometimes be the leadership of one courageous individual that will carry us through that darkness.
The Bottom Line:
Movie and history buffs will be immersed in this pointed and reference-filled exploration of one of the most infamous chapters in Hollywood and American history, while Cranston fans will be delighted to see the actor’s obvious and immense talents translate so well onto the big screen.
Trumbo is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.