Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren
With World War II over, America is in a state of change. For Dalton Tumbo (Bryan Cranston) that means he is on the verge of becoming America’s highest paid screenwriter, but it is also a time where his beliefs are coming under fire. A radical socialist, Trumbo believes in equality of man and the power of the worker in an age where the Red Menace is shaping up to be the next boogie man. As the House Un-American Activities Commission begins its witch hunt, Trumbo and a number of other writers of similar leanings (The Hollywood 10) find themselves facing jail after standing up for their Constitutional rights. Blacklisted after the event, the Hollywood 10 struggle to find work, until a black market for scripts open up. The question is, can a script that was never supposed to be written, by a writer that is not supposed to be writing, win Hollywood’s most prestigious prize?
Trumbo is a glimpse into the paranoia and unfairness that was HUAC. It examines one of the darkest time for Hollywood and the way that talent can shine through even under adversity. It also shows the petty ambitions, the fear, the corruption, and lives destroyed during such a period. Dalton Trumbo is shown as the exception, rather than the rule.
Appropriately enough, Trumbo lives and dies on its sharp script. Often this is honed to a razor wit, delivering some tremendously humorous moments. John McNamara (Lois & Clark, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr) provides a script worthy of the actors delivering it, and the prestigious subject matter it covers. If there is a fault, it lies in the fact that it may be too witty, robbing the film of some of the emotive impact that it requires. It is a hard case to judge. Certainly Trumbo is full of tear jerker moments. It can have you transfixed by a powerful speech, looking at a vision of a world stripped away. Yet does that sardonic tone lessen that impact? Or is it using words as weapons, and with a quick jibe deflating an argument, by showing the pomposity and arrogance of the alternative view? It really depends on your point of view, and for me it was the right balance.
Cranston is in his element as Trumbo (although that element seems to be water, tinged with cigarette smoke and liquor). It’s a role he can sink his teeth into and really nail the persona of the man. It is also a role that requires precise comic timing, and dramatic nuance in about equal measure. At times this sails close to caricature with Trumbo’s distinctive voice and mannerism, but Cranston manages to stay the course.
It may be Cranston’s film, but he is ably backed up by a great cast. John Goodman as maverick producer Frank King is a thing of beauty, allowing Goodman to deliver some wonderfully over the top lines as a no nonsense studio exec. Alan Tudyk as Ian McLellan Hunter by contrast is marvellously understated in his comedic timing. Diane Lane, Louis C.K., Helen Mirren… it really seems that a substantial section of Hollywood clamoured to appear in this film. Given the subject matter and the parallels that can be drawn between the paranoia of then and now, it is easy to see why.
A fascinating glimpse into Hollywood’s darkest time, told with wit and humour. Trumbo also acts as a potent reminder for today.