Screenwriter defies injustice in sharp, witty ‘Trumbo’
Bryan Cranston has come a long way since he played in A Doll’s House and The Taming Of the Shrew with Shakespeare Santa Cruz onstage in the Festival Glen in 1992. He was a flustered TV sitcom dad for several seasons on Malcolm In the Middle. And, oh yes, there’s a little item in his résumé called Breaking Bad, for which he won four Emmys and a Golden Globe.
Cranston has also been making films for years, but rarely has he landed such a plummy starring role—and played it with such relish—as Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted real-life Hollywood screenwriter at the center of Jay Roach’s smart, incisive drama, Trumbo. Scripted by John McNamara, from the nonfiction book by Bruce Cook, it’s a wildly entertaining plunge into the dark heart of anti-Communist witch-hunting in Hollywood during the 1940s and ’50s, as experienced by one extremely savvy intended “victim” who had the guts, the brains and the chutzpah to survive.
In 1947, at the height of a fruitful Hollywood career writing hit movies for the likes of Spencer Tracy and Ginger Rogers, Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) has just inked a deal with MGM to become the highest-paid screenwriter in the business. He and his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane, terrific, as always), and their three young children live on a gorgeous property in the Hollywood Hills. Then one day, he gets a subpoena from the House Un-American Committee to testify in Washington DC about alleged Communist “infiltration” of Hollywood.
As the prologue reminds us, plenty of people joined the Communist Party in the Depression ’30s in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, back when Russia and the USA were allies against the Nazis. But as the Cold War heats up in the late ’40s, “Commies” become the target for right-wing “patriots” like the HUAC, and the Motion Picture Alliance (MPA)—headed up by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren with viperish verve) and John Wayne (David James Elliott)—who claim the film industry is “infested with traitors.”
Membership in the party is considered treason. And when attempts at rational discourse with HUAC prove impossible, those who refuse to comply by giving up the names of their friends, or repudiating the original ideals for which they first embraced Communism, are cited in contempt of Congress. Trumbo won’t play the game, and spends a year in a federal penitentiary. (His writer friend Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), tells the HUAC he can’t answer their questions until he visits his doctor, “to see if he can remove my conscience.”)
Freed from prison, Trumbo, Hird and the rest of the “Hollywood 10” are blacklisted; any producer who hires them risks a public boycott. Trumbo downsizes his life, but keeps writing to support his family. The screenplay he’s been working on becomes the famed romantic comedy Roman Holiday; it wins an Oscar, but the name inscribed on the statuette is another writer, Ian McLellan Hunter, through whom Trumbo had to submit the script.
At the exploitation house King Brothers Productions, Trumbo pseudonymously grinds out no-budget sci-fi and film noir thrillers (an insane schedule that takes its toll on his family). John Goodman is hilarious as honcho Jack King; when a prissy MPA rep tries to threaten him with exposure in the papers if he doesn’t fire Trumbo, King retorts “I make crap! The people who go to my pictures can’t read!” It takes A-Listers Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman, the most persuasive of the onscreen impersonators) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) to end the conspiracy of silence, restoring Trumbo’s on-screen credit (on Spartacus and Exodus), and his reputation.
Cranston plays Trumbo with an edgy, raging wit, pounding away at his typewriter with a cigarette holder in one hand and a glass of hooch nearby. He edits in his bathtub with its makeshift desktop, literally cutting up the script with scissors (in those pre-computer days), and re-pasting the scenes in better order on what looks like a long roll of shelf paper. He’s the heart of this sharp, frisky film for anyone interested in stories about writers, backstage Hollywood, or the (belated) triumph of reason over fear-mongering.
***1/2 (out of f our)
With Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Louis C.K., and John Goodman. Written by John McNamara. Directed by Jay Roach. A Bleecker Street Media release. Rated R. 124 minutes.
BREAKING RED Bryan Cranston plays the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in ‘Trumbo,’ a wildly entertaining plunge into the anti-Communist witch-hunting that took place in Hollywood during the 1940s and ’50s.