From Sunset Boulevard to Argo, Hollywood has always been in the business of self-mythologizing.
It’s not often, though, that the industry takes its licks for the mistakes it’s made along the way.
Writ large among them is, of course, the blacklist, which saw scores of talented, Left-leaning film-makers left out in the cold as the paranoia surrounding Communism reached fever pitch. Through the case study of screenwriter extraordinaire Dalton Trumbo, director Jay Roach’s latest seeks to address the injustice the community blindly meted out to those whose political affiliation it deemed, on hearsay, as un-American.
It helps that Trumbo himself, as portrayed by Bryan Cranston, abounds with both comic and dramatic potential. Garrulous and animated, he pecks furiously away at his typewriter hell for leather; a cigar holder clamped between his teeth. Slick haired and bespectacled, a sort of flesh-and-blood Foghorn Leghorn, Trumbo aggravates his friends with high-minded rhetoric, but he’s a man you want on your side in a fight — especially if that fight happens to be against John Wayne (David James Elliott).
Called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Trumbo and his coterie — including the down-on-his-luck Arden Hird (Louis CK) — are determined to make a show of it, to draw attention to the flagrant breach of their First Amendment rights.
Inflamed by newsreel propaganda and the public trial of atomic spies, the average American citizen is more likely to throw a drink in your face than lend you a show of support. Doubly victims of their time and circumstance, Trumbo and co. find themselves unemployable and facing jail time. Former friends either name names or simply turn their backs.
John McNamara’s script is careful to not uncritically lionize Trumbo, though. However crucial his talent and tenacity may have been to breaking the blacklist, the film also plumbs the depths of his own ego and hypocrisy.
Tossing off quickies like for the King Brothers (an impassive, baseball-bat wielding John Goodman and he of the versatile eyebrows, Stephen Root), alongside Roman Holiday and Spartacus, Dalton succeeds in turning the rest of the Trumbo clan — most notably his glowing wife, Theo (Diane Lane), and blushing daughter, Nikola (Elle Fanning) — into a family business, minus the family aspect. Curmudgeonly and irascible, even tyrannical, for all his insecurity you might well call him Walter Write.
For every hissable villain, like snide, self-righteous gossip columnist Hopper (Helen Mirren), or unwilling turncoat, like the boyishly sympathetic Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), Trumbo finds a hero: thinking man’s action star Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) or the droll, Teutonically absurd Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel).
Cranston’s performance may prove too broad and preening for the Academy to sink their teeth in to, but it’s the sort of thing Golden Globes are made of. (Editor’s note: A prediction proved utterly wrong with hindsight. Brave to the Academy on this one and curse you, Matt Damon!)
Warm and witty, and laden with bon mots — the HUAC are Nazis who are just “too cheap to afford the uniforms” — Trumbo is an engaging, heartfelt romp through the injustices of McCarthy’s America. And, unlike Argo, at least, it seems to be more or less factually true.