Cigarettes in elegant holders, whisky tumblers that never run dry and typewriters in studies and bathtubs – Trumbo is set in Hollywood in the late 1940s and profiles screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who was blacklisted for his political beliefs.
The film opens during a period of great distrust in America. The Cold War had just begun and the Soviets, and Communist-sympathisers in America, were viewed with suspicion. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee began to summon Hollywood entertainment professionals to clarify their political leanings. Those who refused to give information about their colleagues were sent to jail for contempt of the US Congress. Among them was Trumbo, played by Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame.
The film industry backed the government, creating an infamous blacklist of writers, actors, directors and anyone suspected of having Communist affiliations. But Trumbo, described as “a rebel genius”, found ways around this embargo. Not only did he write scripts under pseudonyms, he also created a collective of writers to write material for B-grade films.
During this period, two of Trumbo’s scripts – for Roman Holiday and The Brave One – won Oscars, but neither were credited to him till much later. He went on to write hits like Spartacus and Exodus.
Director Jay Roach, whose credits curiously include Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers movies, cuts away to black-and-white newsreel footage to establish the fear of the spread of Communism in America during that time. He meticulously recreates the world of Trumbo. Helen Mirren is miscast as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, while the actors playing John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger vacillate between earnest and cardboard. Diane Lane (Cleo Trumbo) is wasted with just one scene in which she juggles glasses on the lawn. She spends most of the movie looking troubled by her husband’s situation. Some members of the supporting cast stand out. This includes John Goodman as B-movie producer Frank King and Louis CK as screenwriter Arlen Hird.
Trumbo provides a snapshot of what was clearly a very dark time in Hollywood and American history, but it stays a bit thin on the ground. Bryan Cranston, however, keeps it rooted, firmly shedding any hint of his iconic television persona Walter White. Cranston wholly embraces the principled Trumbo who uses his wit and talent to stave off a witch-hunt. He fights a subversive battle to overcome the blacklist, regain his respect and be acknowledged publicly for his uncredited work. You really feel his despair and humiliation in a scene where a prison guard mechanically examines him. Credit must go to Cranston for giving this lean film some heft.