Bryan Cranston is very good as Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter/Communist/bon vivant/savage wit who won two Oscars under pseudonyms while blacklisted for his politics.
But who would have predicted that “Trumbo” would practically be stolen out from under the multiple Emmy winner by Helen Mirren and John Goodman?
It’s a surfeit of riches.
Dalton Trumbo was contradictory, infuriating, self-righteous, pompous, and wickedly funny. He was very well paid and lived on a sprawling California ranch (earning criticism for being a “swimming pool Soviet”) but appears to have been utterly sincere about making the United States a better place.
He joined the Communist Party of the U.S. largely out of his opposition to fascism in Europe (and, let’s be honest, at home as well). That came back to bite him in the ass after WWII when America went Commie crazy and the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Trumbo and other Hollywood leftists in a search for Red influence in popular entertainment.
Ten of these unfriendly witnesses refused to answer questions, standing on their Fifth Amendment rights and the fact that joining the Communist Party was perfectly legal.
They were convicted of contempt of Congress (Trumbo publicly acknowledged that he was indeed hugely contemptuous of the bullying Congress), spent a year in prison and emerged to find themselves unable to work in the film or television industry.
Most saw their careers ruined. Trumbo began cranking out screenplays under fake names. Much of his work of this period was pure exploitative schlock, but two of his scripts — for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One” — won Oscars, although of course Trumbo could not acknowledge they were his work.
Director Jay Roach’s film concentrates mostly on those “lost” years of hustling for work and writing without getting any credit.
It was a decade of struggle for Trumbo’s family. His long-suffering wife Cleo (Diane Lane, underutilized) tried to keep things together while his oldest daughter (Elle Fanning) chafed under her father’s monomaniacal work habits, which eliminated any chance of adolescent normalcy.
Finally actor Kirk Douglas broke the back of the blacklist by giving Trumbo screen credit for his work on 1961’s “Spartacus.”
“Trumbo” works best when it is duplicating the atmosphere of paranoia and persecution that infected the film industry in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. The studio brass saw Red influence even in the perfectly legal unionization activities of Hollywood craftsmen; Trumbo dismissed the bosses as Nazis who were “too cheap to buy the uniforms.”
John McNamara’s screenplay (based on Bruce Cook’s Trumbo biography) is jammed with Hollywood name dropping. Among the famous figures who show up here are actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), John Wayne (David James Elliott), and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman).
Alan Tudyk and Louis C.K. portray fellow leftists and writers. Richard Portnow is convincing as studio boss Louis B. Mayer.
But running away with the show are Mirren and Goodman.
Mirren is wonderfully hateful as Hedda Hopper, film industry gossip columnist renowned for her colorful hats and anti-Communist rhetoric. Mirren is too good to make the character a cardboard crazy. Instead she gives us a shrewdly calculating woman who relishes her power over Hollywood.
And then there’s Goodman as Frank King, a sleazeball producer of Poverty Row titles who gives Trumbo plenty of uncredited work. These aren’t prestige productions (“We bought a gorilla suit…we gotta use it,” he says of Trumbo’s latest assignment) but when push came to shove the bombastic King defiantly refused to buckle under to his holier-than-thou industry colleagues.
Movies about writers start out in the hole because there’s nothing less cinematic than a guy at a typewriter. But because of its setting, the rich characters that wander in and out, and the still-relevant subject matter (American seems to have a newfound love for fascism), “Trumbo” delivers the goods.