Injustice has a major starring role in Hollywood today, but it’s practically a silent extra compared to what it was in the ’40s and ’50s. Once their common enemy was defeated in WW2, American democracy and Soviet communism gave each other the cold shoulder for 40 decades. The political climate changed with the snap of a finger, and ideals that were just yesterday welcomed, or at least tolerated, suddenly became associated with high national treason. Actors, writers, directors, and various other artists became an obsessive fixation for the House Un-American Activities Committee, who formed the darkest cloud over Hollywood’s hills for many years after the war. The targets were mostly hard-working, honest men like screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, an unsung hero of creative liberty and one helluva tough freedom fighter. His story is told in “Trumbo” by many people, but the film’s MVPs are Bryan Cranston‘s dedicated performance as the title character, and, appropriately, John McNamara‘s jocular screenplay, with a terrific ensemble of supporters also along for the ride back to Hollywood’s notorious past.
The first impression we get of Cranston’s Trumbo is one the legendary screenwriter became famous for: sitting in a bathtub, a half-smoked cigarette clinging to his lips, stuck on a word. Once it hits him, he whirls into a creative frenzy that’s both inspiring and comical to watch. Following him around a few film sets and Hollywood shindigs, we meet the people he’ll most associate with — for better or for worse — over the course of his tumultuous career. People like the enigmatic actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) who befriends him, and fellow screenwriter Arlen Hird (Louis C.K., playing a composite of a number of real-life figures) who shares his political ideology, but less happily, the vicious Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), whose love for gossip was only equalled by her hatred of communists.
On the personal front, there’s wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three kids — the oldest of whom we watch grow into a strong-willed young woman (Elle Fanning). Then, in the ’50s, we are privileged with scenes of Trumbo’s professional relationship with Frank (John Goodman) and Herman King (Stephen Root), producers of hilariously titled B-movies that provided Dalton with a living undercover. And there are even more characters who come and go, including some famous faces like David James Elliott‘s John Wayne and Christian Berkel‘s Otto Preminger, who are more caricatures than characters, but still indubitably memorable. This gives you an idea of the powerhouse of supporters Cranston had to keep away from the spotlight. Each are so good in their own singular ways yet Cranston’s thunder was never really at risk of being stolen. A fact that’s somehow clear from the very first minute we see him sitting in that bathtub — he owns “Trumbo,” both character and film, from first word to last.
The film traces the screenwriter’s professional evolution, from blacklisted Hollywood writer and face of the notorious “Hollywood 10,” to a thankless life of writing under pseudonyms and winning Academy Awards on the couch. McNamara’s screenplay is crammed with colossal one-liners, which everyone’s clearly having fun with. Gems like “I’m a screenwriter; if I couldn’t write shit, I’d starve,” or Louis C.K.’s one-of-a-kind delivery of beauts like, “he’s trying to sell his soul, but he can’t find it.” At times, it almost becomes too many good lines too fast (like in most every scene featuring Goodman), which obstructs the film’s rhythm and leaves little breathing room. But boy is it entertaining.
Director Jay Roach knows a thing or three about entertaining audiences. He’s directed “Meet The Parents,” and the “Austin Powers” movies, but “Trumbo” is probably his best film, by virtue of association to the strongest ensemble he’s worked with, and an exemplary script. The film becomes particularly good once we enter the blacklisted segment of Trumbo’s career, when theatricality starts to take a backseat to a deeper insight into the egotistical and self-righteous side of this man. He’s no longer just a cartoonish figure, chain-smoking in his bathtub, but a father screaming at his daughter on her birthday, a friend immune to the pain of others around him, and a husband bullying his wife out of arguments. Some emotional depth is reached, and Cranston’s performance adapts accordingly, ending on an immensely moving final speech that confirms the role as his greatest in the post-“Breaking Bad” phase of his career.
The speech also drives home another important point. Trumbo’s obsessive drive for justice in a creatively stifled atmosphere of inequality is something that’s becoming a desperate need in today’s Hollywood. The incessant ageism, sexism, and underrepresentation of non-white professionals in the film industry today hardly compares to the suicide rates, countless cases of lost jobs, and undeserved prison sentences in the film industry back then. But, the core is one and the same: freedom of expression and the fight for equality. The picture is an incredibly fun leap into a time-machine back into old-fashioned Hollywood, whose good and bad characteristics are twisted to be both endearing and entertaining. But more than this, its fiery central character is a big symbol of something that’s missing in present-day Hollywood. Where are the Dalton Trumbos of today? [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.