Movies about classic Hollywood are often really self-aggrandizing and congratulatory: something this town loves to do in spades. It’s rare to find a movie set in the Golden Age that actually deals with issues and political and social turmoil while also being about the fanciest place during its glitziest time in history. Carefully walking that line is Jay Roach’s new film, Trumbo—about the blacklisted but undeniably talented Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo—who was ostracized from his place as the highest-paid writer of the time because of his outspoken leftist political beliefs. He was part of the Hollywood 10 and was easily the biggest name among them.
The film, which is Roach’s first directorial non-comedy, tries to explain the political climate of Post-WWII America and the Red Scare as a whole in terms of the paranoia and government over-exertion of the time. Some in Hollywood had joined the Communist Party during WWII when anti-Fascist fervor was at its highest, but once the Cold War began, and Communism became the enemy, people who’d joined up and still believed in its ethos were under scrutiny from those more right-leaning among the elite.
Bryan Cranston plays the titular Trumbo, a larger-than-life, soliloquizing figure who is equal parts genius and blowhard. He is fervent in his stance that people’s political beliefs don’t translate to being a spy or enemy agent. Joining him are people like Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), who didn’t actually exist but was Trumbo’s screenwriting cohort in the film—and even further to the left than our main man. Michael Stuhlbarg portrays Edward G. Robinson, a liberal Democrat who aided the Hollywood 10 until he was losing work because of it. David James Elliot plays the Duke himself, John Wayne, a notoriously right wing figure who acts as a secondary nemesis behind Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper, a powerful columnist who led the charge against anybody who wasn’t part of what she thought Hollywood should be.
Trumbo was eventually blacklisted and forced to write crappy movies under a pseudonym, though there were also some good ones. The other big part of the film involved Trumbo’s family–including his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), and eldest daughter Niki (played later in the film by Elle Fanning)—the ones who have to put up with the occasionally bullheaded tyrant. When he begins his underground screenwriting trade, he never stops writing and forces his family to be his couriers, which takes its toll on everybody. We never get a sense that Trumbo is in any way remorseful for his politics, but we get a bit of him being vulnerable with his family, which is refreshing.
Cranston does a really fine job, if perhaps getting slightly caricatured at points. In a movie like this, with lots and lots of actors playing real people, it’s easy for them to just be broad-stroke pastiches, but generally speaking, the script by John McNamara gives them all nuance—even those like Hopper who are pretty much portrayed as vile the whole way through. (Was she vile? At this point who can really say?) C.K. acquits himself rather wonderfully, though it might help that he’s playing an amalgam of real people and not a specific person.
While maybe not as hard-hitting a drama as one might hope, Trumbo is a very engaging, very interesting, and very entertaining look at a man who for many years was a pariah, getting drinks thrown in his face and under constant scrutiny, but has begun to receive the accolades he so richly deserved.
Image: Bleeker Street Media
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!