Lovers of the Golden Age of Hollywood will have a blast at Trumbo, though they may also feel like the proverbial choir being preached to by this account of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist, as dramatized in the person of Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. There’s red meat for that crowd in the personages of Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, Louis B. Mayer, John Wayne, and Hedda Hopper, and yet, R-rating for language notwithstanding, Trumbo will be more valuable for young viewers who need the film’s history lesson—if they can be lured away from The Hunger Games to take it in.
The at-times stranger-than-fiction Trumbo recalls how Senator Joseph McCarthy targeted American Communists, most publicly those in Hollywood, compelling Congressional testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. As one of the most prominent of the famed “Hollywood 10” who refused on constitutional grounds to cooperate with HUAC, Trumbo has gone down in history as a champion of true American values. Jay Roach’s film, adapted by John McNamara from Bruce Cook’s biography Dalton Trumbo, makes for a clear, concise, and typically zesty account of the encroaching shadows in those otherwise sunny post-war days.
Trumbo (Emmy and Tony winner Bryan Cranston) and his politically sympathetic peers (including Michael Stuhlbarg’s Edward G. Robinson) attempt to win respect for Communist ideals and the right to non-seditious dissent, but they’re already on a slippery slope to HUAC. Beginning in 1947, we see Trumbo in public, as well as at work and at home (essentially the same place, which makes for domestic strife), a contempt-of-Congress prison stint making for a horrible interlude. Throughout, Trumbo has the respect and support of his long-suffering wife (Diane Lane’s Cleo) and children (most prominently Elle Fanning’s Nikola), though he tests their patience with his self-enabled abuse of cigs, liquor, and Benzedrine, his at-times ungrateful presumption of their employ in his home business, and his short, hot temper under stress and on deadline.
All of this is plenty to constitute an interesting drama, but McNamara goes further to ensure that Trumbo plays not as straight hagiography but rather as a portrait of a flawed hero. Composite character Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), friend and fellow screenwriter to Trumbo, calls him on his hypocrisy as a wealthy Communist who thrives on capitalism, suggesting that his high-minded ethical proclamations amount to something of a house of cards (Robinson also chides his healthy ego by referring to his “little sermons on citizenship”). We see Trumbo as an erudite and witty man of letters, a leader in his profession (signing a record-breaking three-year contract before the blacklist made him a pariah), a lovingly driven provider for his family, and a fearless political leader. (Unfortunately, the film’s historical bona fides take a hit by dramatizing Kirk Douglas’ overstated claims of cracking the blacklist, playing nice with the still-living movie star.)
Roach gives it all a light touch reminiscent of Ed Wood—especially when the great John Goodman shows up as a low-class producer—in its irreverent view of Hollywood as a “Dream Factory” propped up by the likes of Communist-slayer Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren, delightfully tart). Cranston gives a floridly theatrical leading performance in keeping with Trumbo’s wit, and Theodore Shapiro supplies a vintage-styled jazz score, such spoonfuls of sugar helping the history go down.