REVIEW: “Trumbo” – Cranston tremendous in Hollywood Blacklist drama

It’s hard to imagine that were he alive today, Dalton Trumbo, whose Hollywood screenwriter career was severely damaged and later defined in Hollywood history by his blacklisting for his political beliefs, wouldn’t look upon the new film that bears his name, Trumbo, and love every minute of it. Full of sharp wit and humor to balance out the tragic story it tells of one of Hollywood’s darkest periods in the mid-20th Century, it’s full of the sort of moxie and spirit that the real-life man displayed in the years when the fear of the “Red Menace” turned the entertainment industry on itself. Smartly written and brilliantly acted by an all-star cast led by Bryan Cranston (AMC’s “Breaking Bad“), it’s a film that should have people talking for hours after the credits have rolled, for its quality and for the undeniable parallels between the fear-driven atmosphere depicted in the film and our own extremist-driven political and social climate.

In the mid to late 1940’s, Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) was among Hollywood’s most sought-after and well-paid screenwriters. He was also a loving husband to his wife Cleo (Diane Lane), a doting father to his three children, a loyal friend to many other Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and actors, and a fiercely outspoken liberal democrat who joined the Communist Party of the U.S.A. a decade prior in order to fight for the civil rights of African-Americans and for the rights of American workers to unionize. A man of tremendous intellect, talent, and personal charisma, he seemed to have it all — wealth, success, and love — all while displaying an independent spirit and a willingness to wear his beliefs about his rights and those of all Americans on his sleeve, no matter who those beliefs might antagonize.

That attitude made Trumbo the face of the enemy to more politically conservative elements within Hollywood’s industry circles, who years before had formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals to establish a united front against the perceived threat of infiltration by communists and fascists. To members of the MPA, like its long-time president John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Hollywood gossip maven Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), Trumbo and his associates were nothing less than traitors, and the worst threat imaginable to America and its way of life, as they were capable of crafting entertainment for the masses laced with their subversive and supposedly anti-American ideas.

In 1947, Trumbo, along with 10 other noted screewriters, actors, and directors, were called before Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions about their affiliations and political beliefs, questions which they refused to answer in the belief that Congress had no right to ask them, and their very presence before the committee was a violation of their civil rights. The “Hollywood Ten”, as Trumbo and those who followed his lead in not answering HUAC’s queries, were held in contempt of Congress, and as criminal proceedings began with the intent of sending them to prison, Hollywood’s major film studios, under pressure from the MPA, blacklisted them from working on films or productions of any kind.

Trumbo’s subsequent eleven month prison term proves to be simply the beginning of the trials he and his family would face, as the Hollywood Blacklist would hold sway over the entertainment industry for the next 13 years. The ways he finds to keep writing and to keep up the fight against the injustice visited upon him and his colleagues, all deprived of their livelihoods by fear mongers and those who bow to their tactics, make up much of the balance of the film, but important here, too, is the collateral damage Trumbo’s fight inflicts those closest to him, which at times threatens to destroy the family that was the center of his world before his fight for his right to work and have his thoughts and beliefs be his own.

Trumbo one-sheet

Trumbo is a bit of an oddity considering the prior resumé of its director, Jay Roach. Better known for his work on big screen comedies such as Meet the Parents, The Campaign, and the Austin Powers films, usually if he chooses to work on more serious and politically-minded fare, it’s for HBO. His prior efforts on such films as 2008’s Recount and 2012’s Game Change show he’s especially adept at taking on stories built up on contentious and complicated political situations and the larger-than-life figures we historically associate with them, so if you’ve seen and enjoyed those films, you already know you’re in a for a treat with Trumbo. Roach for the most part keeps the story moving at a comfortable, efficient pace, and effectively balancing smart, occasion-appropriate humor with arresting drama. Though he keeps Bryan Cranston and the titular character in just about every frame, he provides plenty of opportunities for the rest of the cast to shine, resulting is a performance-centric film that provides tons of entertainment due to the actors bringing to life legends of Hollywood’s Golden Era in vibrant and memorable ways.

Speaking of standout performances, Cranston simply rules the screen here. Whether he’s hacking away at a typewriter, editing a manuscript while soaking in a bathtub, or verbally sparring with members of Congress while flashbulbs go off in all directions, his is a committed and commanding turn that should garner him lots of awards attention in a few months when Oscar season gets going, but it’s not only accolade-worthy work here. Diane Lane brings warmth, soft-spoken strength, and undeniable presence to Cleo, while Helen Mirren is positively hissable as Hedda Hopper, who the film portrays as motivated in her anti-communism fervor by more than simply misguided patriotism. Michael Stuhlbarg, who earlier this year displayed his considerable talents in Pawn Sacrifice and Steve Jobs, delivers a truly impactful and sympathetic turn as screen icon Edward G. Robinson, while Louis C.K. turns in solid work without straying too far from his established comedic persona as one of Trumbo’s more contentious colleagues in the “Hollywood Ten.” Also watch for David James Elliott’s take on “The Duke”, which is simply uncanny, and John Goodman bringing trademark toughness and humor to his turn as schlock film producer Frank King, for whom Trumbo cranked out middling scripts under various pseudonyms for years while blacklisted. It’s conceivable that Cranston, Lane, Mirren, Stuhlbarg, and even Louis C.K. could all come away from Trumbo with Oscar nominations — not likely, considering the strength of the respective Best in performance categories are this year, but it is conceivable. Everyone really is that good.

But even if you’re not one to really keep track of actors and individual performances and you simply enjoy great storytelling in film, Trumbo is certainly still worth your while. Looking past all the Hollywood history, screen icons, and social commentary, the film at its heart is a story about fighting back against bullies, about staying true to your ideals and fighting the good fight in any way you can, no matter how long that fight might take. Living in today’s world, where often the personalities people gravitate towards and the voices that are most often heard are simply the loudest and most extreme ones, it shouldn’t be hard for audiences to see parallels with the times that Dalton Trumbo lived in, and indeed, how those difficult times foreshadowed our own. Given that, the story of his eventual vindication and triumph should be even more inspiring, or at the very least, just really enjoyable to watch. It’s the story of a giant who became an underdog, who then fought and fought and fought until the bullies’ day was finally done and he could stand tall again. What’s not to love about that?

Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, and Helen Mirren. Directed by Jay Roach.
Running Time: 124 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.