“Who?” Audiences would be forgiven their blank looks at the title of this Hollywood biopic. It is a name that was meant to be blotted from film forever. After almost fifty years of first infamy then essential obscurity, the Trumbo name blazes once more across the cinema screen in director Jay Roach’s superb and hilarious portrait that ensures you’ll never forget that name again.
Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is at the top of his game; he’s an award-winning novelist, Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter and shares an idyllic ranch with his beautiful young family. When Cold War hysteria leads Congress to investigate “Un-American Activities,” Trumbo’s Communist Party membership finds him under suspicion. Fired by the studios and sent to jail by the government along with nine of his peers, his livelihood and good name are wrenched away. Until he finds a crafty way of thumbing his nose at the system and do what he does best: writing movies.
The treatment of the Hollywood Ten was both a travesty and a tragedy. The delight of Trumbo is that rather than being a po-faced history lesson (take note Suffragette) it is instead a triumphant celebration of its subject. Roach brings a welcome joie de vivre to proceedings, aided by a breezy score and pacey editing. Here the screenwriter extraordinaire is promoted from tragic footnote into a full-blown hero. He even has an arch nemesis, Helen Mirren’s poisonous Hedda Hopper, the bilious gossip columnist who fanned the flames of the witch-hunt. Trumbo’s ingenuity in flouting the heinous Blacklist through pseudonyms, beating Hollywood at their own game and winning their unwitting awards approval in the process, is terrific fun, and while the film never loses sight of the stakes, it is all the more engaging by being so entertaining.
Trumbo may be a hero, but he is certainly no saint. John McNamara’s script adeptly highlights the contradictions within his character. A committed communist, yet obsessed with making money (good news is greeted with the finest sparkling wine; he is quite literally a champagne socialist). A devoted family man and loyal friend, yet unable to see the damage his crusade causes his wife, children and comrades. As Cranston demonstrated in Breaking Bad, the erstwhile Heisenberg is unsurpassed at exploring this duality. An actor who says as much with a lip curl as he can with a pitch perfect monologue, it is the best cinematic showcase yet for his considerable talents, and like Trumbo before him, Cranston’s work more than merits the Academy’s attention come Oscar time.
The starry supporting cast sparkle with all the shimmer of Tinseltown’s Golden Age. The ever-dependable Michael Stuhlbarg gives a dramatic impression of the legendary Edward G Robinson that resists impersonation. Stuhlbarg highlights the great personal cost endured by those under the committee’s suspicious eye, as does Louis CK, who, as a fellow traveller irked by Trumbo’s posturing, almost steals the film with his earnest wit. John Goodman then completes that heist as an eye-wateringly funny B-movie producer, whose script critiques of his studio’s garbage output and full-on Walter Sobchak temper tantrum provoked gales of laughter in our screening. With well cast minor characters including swaggering John Wayne, principled Kirk Douglas and bizarrely insistent Otto Preminger, it is also a treat for classic film fans.
A good old-fashioned crowd-pleaser with an admirably light touch in addressing a dark chapter of history, Trumbo entertains and engages but does so much more. It gives a great man his name back. For that it deserves eminent and enduring credit.
Trumbo received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and will be on general release on February 5th 2016