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If there’s one thing awards pundits should have learned over the last five years, it’s that Academy members love movies that prominently feature Hollywood artists, their struggles and their resilience — The Artist (2011), Argo (2012) and Birdman (2014) all won the best picture Oscar. So regardless of what critics or audiences may have to say about it, be sure to keep a close eye this season on Trumbo, a film about the most famous victim of the Hollywood blacklist, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre on Saturday night.
Jay Roach, who is best known for directing the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents films, may not sound like the obvious choice to direct a film about the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. But he also directed the Emmy-winning HBO movies Recount (2008) and Game Change (2012), feature-length stories that distilled dense periods of political history into engaging films, which is precisely what he’s done with Trumbo, as well.
Does his latest film, which John McNamara adapted from a Bruce Cook biography, sometimes look and feel like an HBO movie, with a sort of glossy sheen and a lot of big-name stars popping up in glorified cameos? Perhaps. But if that’s what it takes to get people to remember or learn and care about a crucial subject that’s never been thoroughly tackled on the big screen — although The Front (1976) and Guilty by Suspicion (1991) made respectable attempts — then what’s wrong with that?
The whole thing would have fallen apart if a compelling actor had not been found to play Trumbo, a man with very specific physical and behavioral traits. Fortunately, one was: Breaking Bad Emmy winner Bryan Cranston, who is just terrific, conveying the smarts, energy and nobility of a man who was persecuted for his beliefs but refused to be brought down, personally or professionally, by his persecutors.
Also good in smaller roles are Oscar winner Helen Mirren, as gossip Hedda Hopper; John Goodman, as a movie schlockmeister; Louis C.K., as a fictional blacklisted friend of Trumbo; Richard Portnow, as Louis B. Mayer (the two look a lot alike); Michael Stuhlbarg, as Edward G. Robinson (the two look nothing alike); Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s wife, Cleo; and Elle Fanning (who’s had a major growth-spurt), as Trumbo’s oldest daughter, Nikola.
Above all, though, Trumbo deserves praise for tackling this important story at all, especially at a time when movies of this sort are increasingly difficult to make. As someone who has studied the period in question, I admired how faithful it was to the details of what actually happened — it uses stock footage of the original congressional hearings and the Committee for the First Amendment, audio from the original Hollywood Fights Back broadcasts, the exact words of Trumbo’s famous “only victims” speech, etc. — and I suspect that many in the Academy, especially those who actually lived through the period, will respond similarly. Enough to propel Cranston to a best actor nom or the film to a best picture nom? That remains to be seen.
I’m especially happy, though, that several of those victims — Walter Bernstein, Marsha Hunt, Lee Grant, Jean Rouverol and Norma Barzman — lived long enough to see this film, not because they want any sort of glory for being survivors, but because their greatest fear is that what they went through could all too easily happen again if history is forgotten.
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