It’s hard to imagine a time when Hollywood was concerned by anything except box office and the bottom line, nor a period where screenwriters were given much consideration outside awards season. So the amusingly informative biopic Trumbo — about the famous blacklisted scribe who stood up to Congress, went to jail, and then went on to write films like Roman Holiday, Spartacus and Lonely Are the Brave — serves as a decent reminder that not everyone in Tinseltown needs to be driven by greed, hubris and the endless pursuit of Oscar (although Trumbo won two for himself.)
Starring Bryan Cranston in a role that demands a certain amount of grandstanding and a huge amount of cigarette smoking, this rather hastily made period piece is boosted by a few welcome stabs at humor, most notably from sidemen Louis C.K. and John Goodman, playing two industry members who saw Trumbo through the worst years of the Red Scare. Otherwise, the film can be far from subtle at times and tends to wear its righteous politics on its sleeve, making it more of an elevated TV dramedy than a work on par with Trumbo’s best efforts. But how many movies today are?
Adapted by John McNamara from Bruce Cook’s definitive biography, and directed by Jay Roach in a style somewhere between his commercial comedies (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers) and his politically charged HBO movies (Recount, Game Change), Trumbo world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival prior to a release this coming November from Bleecker Street. Cranston’s name could help attract modest theatrical crowds in the first frame, though this movie about movies will likely play best on the small screen.
Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s hottest writers in the 1930s and ‘40s, garnering critical acclaim for his antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun (which he himself adapted to the screen in 1971), while penning popular films like the Ginger Rogers starrer Kitty Foyle, the pro-war picture Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and the Victor Fleming drama A Guy Named Joe. He was also an outspoken member of the Communist Party, standing up for labor rights and other leftist causes of the day.
The story kicks off in 1947, right around the time when the witty and acerbic screenwriter was chastised for his convictions by two patriotic flag-wavers: actor John Wayne (David James Elliott) and columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) — with the latter depicted here as a vulgar melange of Nikki Finke and Sean Hannity, trying her best to tank Trumbo’s career for well over a decade.
Despite the surrounding political pressures, Trumbo continued to work like a mad dog, staying up all night to write in his bathtub (he could produce up to 30 pages a day) and signing a contract with MGM that would make him the highest-paid writer in the business. But as anti-communist purges expanded and the House Un-American Activities Committee, headed by J. Parnell Thomas (James Dumont), set its sights on the film industry, Trumbo found himself central target, refusing, along with nine other writers and directors — a group that became known as the Hollywood Ten — to name names and holding himself in contempt of Congress.
The film’s opening sections move rather quickly through the lead-up to Trumbo’s imprisonment in 1950, revealing him to be a happily married family man (Diane Lane plays his wife, Cleo) and major workaholic, though also somewhat of a self-righteous speechifier. Luckily, his fictional buddy Arlen Hird (Louis C.K., basically playing himself) is there to cut him down when he gets too uppity, and the scenes between them help to redeem what can often feel like a broad historical pastiche.
Things get more interesting when Trumbo returns from prison, only to be blacklisted by the studios with Hopper helping to lead the charge. Forced to make a living by having other writers claim his scripts as their own, he dashed through dozens of screenplays, penning countless B-movies for producer Frank King (Goodman in pure Barton Fink mode) as well as Oscar winners Roman Holiday and The Brave One — for which he had to watch others accept his prize. His massive output would take a toll on his home life, though he would eventually find redemption when granted screen credit for Stanley Kubrick‘s Spartacus and Otto Preminger‘s Exodus, marking his official return to the biz.
The rapidity with which Trumbo performed tends to carry over to Trumbo the film, with Roach zipping through material in a manner more suitable for television than the big screen, cutting back and forth between comic high jinks, dramatic low points and re-created historical footage of the communist witch hunts. Both the camerawork and editing are fast and serviceable, if never extremely interesting to watch, while a cloying score by Theodore Shapiro seems to hits every single note on the nose.
What makes the movie work are the lively performances, both from the supporting cast and from Cranston, who sheds the mimicry and pontificating of earlier scenes to turn Trumbo into a wry, self-deprecating and somewhat cheeky older man, even if he continued to stand up for what was right. Perhaps his prison term and 15-year trial by fire showed him that there really was more to life than the movies. In such a world of make-believe, Trumbo was that rare thing: a rebel with a cause.
Production companies: Groundswell Productions, ShivHans Pictures
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Elle Fanning
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: John McNamara, based on the book “Dalton Trumbo” by Bruce Cook
Producers: Michael London, Janice Williams, Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson, Nimitt Mankad, John McNamara, Kevin Kelly Brown
Executive producer: Kelly Mullen
Director of photography: Jim Denault
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi
Editor: Alan Baumgarten
Composer: Theodore Shapiro
Casting director: David Rubin
Sales agent: Entertainment One
Rated R, 124 minutes