Will there ever be enough movies about the Cold War? Hollywood is absolutely fascinated by the era, but they’ve notably been less fascinated exploring one of the darkest chapters in showbiz history. The reality of the Cold War wasn’t just increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia; it was also a time of unprecedented mistrust and scrutiny within our own borders. Hollywood wasn’t exempt, either, and often seemed like the epicenter of the Communist witch hunt that destroyed lives and careers. One of those who fought back against that injustice was blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, whose story is told in the surprisingly rousing and playful “Trumbo”.
“Rousing” and “playful” may seem odd adjectives to describe such a time of intense paranoia, but Trumbo would probably be the first to crack a perfectly-worded witticism about his predicament. In fact he did, multiple times. When asked “What’s your position on the blacklist?” he replied simply with, “On it”. And that’s the kind of tongue-in-cheek attitude taken by first-time screenwriter John McNamara and director Jay Roach, but most assuredly by Cranston who is clearly relishing his chance at a rare leading role.
Beginning in 1947, the film tracks Trumbo’s life from the time he’s investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, with accusations that he’s a Communist. Well, he was. But so what? It wasn’t illegal, and that’s his general defense when the charges are levied against him. Of course that wasn’t going to fly, not with anti-Red gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) exposing him and other big name screenwriters. Trumbo, whose personality is an unusual mix of elitist English professor and working-class dynamo, becomes the central figure of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten”, but keeps on writing under a pseudonym and completely undermines the entire system.
While the film has terrific momentum throughout, it’s during Trumbo’s underground screenwriting phase where it really takes off. Taking on the feel of a good heist movie, the film sees Trumbo assembling a colorful group of similarly banned and equally ideological writers to pen crappy B-movies for a rebellious producer played with gusto by John Goodman. McNamara, who wrote episodes of “Lois & Clark: The Adventures of Superman” previously, rattles of one snappy line of dialogue after another. The best are delivered by Cranston, Goodman, and Louis C.K. as grouchy screenwriter Arlen Hird, who acts as an edgier foil for Trumbo. If some of the shady characters like Hopper are painted as one-note villains, it’s made up for by the nuance seen in Trumbo. Diane Lane plays his loyal wife, Cleo, while Elle Fanning is his spirited daughter, Nikola; both affected greatly by the weight of Trumbo’s life hidden in the shadows. Trumbo, who is often seen neck deep in the bathtub puffing at a cigarette while hammering out a script, often becomes blinded by the war he’s waging at the detriment of those around him. In one terrific scene, Cleo finally reminds him what’s important; and in another we see what Nikola has learned about fighting the good fight.
Known mostly for broad comedies, Roach has taken a distinctly political path “Recount”, “Game Change”, and “The Campaign”, but “Trumbo” is easily the best film he’s ever done. Of course he’s helped by a top notch script and number of adept performances. Cranston’s unforgettable run on “Breaking Bad” aside, he’s never been afforded a role of such depth. He gets down to the essence of what makes Trumbo tick, capturing him as a father, an activist, a friend, and the angel on America’s shoulder. If “Trumbo” tells us anything it’s that Hollywood needs the occasional firebrand who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. But what a toll that battle Trumbo fought took on him. What he went through wasn’t for nothing, and “Trumbo” makes sure it won’t be forgotten.