Director: Jay Roach.
Writers: John McNamara, Bruce Cook (book)
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren
Running time: 124 min
Reviewer: Andy Millward
What a turnaround for the career of Bryan Cranston! Before Breaking Bad he won awards for his TV work but mostly got supporting roles and cameos in movies, all of which he pulled off with aplomb. His turn in multiple series as Walter White, chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer turned drug baron, shot Cranston into the Hollywood stratosphere and into leading roles such as the eponymous Dalton Trumbo.
Cranston is primarily a character actor, neither young nor especially pretty but a craftsman, an artisan of his trade – the sort of actor we should be celebrating in preference to “stars.” Now he can afford to pick and choose his roles, Cranston can not only work with the best directors and costars in the business, he can work on quality projects that justify investment.
Trumbo is unquestionably one such project, and the sort that at one time would not have been made, given its sympathetic portrayal of a screenwriter who defied the McCarthyite witch-hunts and an embargo on his work to become a wealthy and celebrated member of the Hollywood establishment – and, posthumously, to have his name restored as sole writer of the Oscar-winning script for Roman Holiday, The Brave One and, of course, Spartacus, the conflicts of which form a significant part of the narrative.
I doubt Hollywood or the US Congress looks back with any pride on their treatment of a man whose social conscience and support for workers’ rights, even in the Cold War where the Soviet Union was bogeyman and scapegoat for everything evil in the world. This is ultimately a film about the injustices of the Hollywood blacklist, the principle plot line in this film. Along with many more, Trumbo was hounded by the House un-American Activities Committee and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), including long-time Trumbo adversaries such as John Wayne (David James Elliott), Ronald Reagan (referred to but not portrayed on screen) and showbiz columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren.)
However, such is the dramatic value and character study that while spotting famous names is fun (eg. John Wayne as mentioned above, Kirk Douglas played by Dean O’Gorman, Michael Stuhlbarg‘s Edward G Robinson, and a very entertaining Otto Preminger owned by Christian Berkel), you could almost forget the biopic genre. There Richard Portnow‘s Louis B Mayer) was much more to Mr Trumbo than being a pariah and victim of the injustices of the system, so it is greatly to the credit of writer John McNamara and director Jay Roach that they have created a very rounded portrait of a man, his work, his family life and the times in which he lived. For example, how feverishly he worked around the clock, fuelled by amphetamines and bourbon; his towering ego, his paradoxes (such as being a wealthy communist), his cantankerous attitudes and difficult relationships with his children, notably Elle Fanning‘s Nikola, that his self-absorption caused – but also of his deep trust of loyal wife Cleo (Diane Lane.)
For that matter, his treatment of colleagues varied from the noble to the sarcastic and the cruel, contrasting with unpredictable fits of remorse and rage. Among the victims of Trump’s thoughtless behaviour is his loyal friend and colleague Arlen Hird (Louis CK), actually a composite character, as quoted in a fascinating article in Bustle:
The Hollywood 10 was a real thing, and the film’s portrayal of the 10 stays true to the facts — for the most part. This is a Hollywood movie, and adding nine more characters into a film makes it a little crowded. That’s why Trumbo decided to create the character of Arlen Hird, played by Louis C.K. He’s a composite of five real-life communist screenwriters who knew Trumbo between 1947-1970: Samuel Ornitz, Alvah Bessie, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, and John Howard Lawson.
Hird’s death as a destitute blacklisted screenwriter is followed by a scene at the funeral where Hird’s son apologises to Trumbo for not being able to repay his debts. Trumbo replies that it is he who owes the debt. That makes me wonder what Trump’s real relationship with the five colleagues listed in the article were like.
It takes a rare actor to portray such a complex character coherently. Cranston is simply towering – he guides the narrative with an emotional eloquence requiring great skill to acquire and deliver. Ultimately, though, Trumbo succeeds as a film. by virtue of being a superbly written, filmed and performed movie, way beyond the leading man. In fact, I confidently predict that Trumbo himself would have approved of how is story was written and performed, and there could be no greater plaudit for the makers of a biopic.
On the down side, it may well be politically naive, such as where Trumbo defines communism as “sharing” to his young daughter. Trumbo’s views may well have been sincere but how hard-line his support of oppressive communist regimes is not recorded here, probably on the grounds that it would detract from the story of his principled stand as one of the Hollywood ten to refuse to name names. Even allowing for that, it’s a rattling good film.