“The rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan”
I will admit that my interest in the Dalton Trumbo biopic Trumbo was held in check for one reason: director Jay Roach. The guy behind the horrible Meet the Parents saga and uneven Austin Powers series was hired to helm a historical drama with huge political ramifications and a slice of Hollywood’s past many would like to forget? It’s my fault for forgetting that he also helped steward the HBO dramas Recount and Game Change—two other biographies with casts and aesthetics that easily could have fallen into farce. Maybe Roach is onto something as he alternates between comedy fluff and political exposés because it seems to be working well for him financially and to a point critically. It’s no joke: Trumbo is good.
The reason for this is less because of Trumbo’s (Bryan Cranston) tale of personal and professional struggle warring against a corrupt Congress and conservative Hollywood—how crazy that such a stereotypically liberal industry today saw that party so vilified then—and more for the sheer number of celebrity names who became allies and enemies of the journey. We’re talking actress-turned-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) spearheading the witch-hunt with The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI) President John Wayne (David James Elliott); actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) as friend and snitch; moneymaking employers Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie King (Stephen Root); and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) as blacklist breakers. Hollywood was petty, angry, scared, and broken.
And screenwriter John McNamara—adapted from Bruce Cook‘s biography Dalton Trumbo—puts it all onscreen. Some characters become composites like blacklisted ally Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), but the facts are still intact. Trumbo stood by his politics as a communist who loved his country. He was no spy, but then no one else was as the world soon discovered when ten-plus years of internal fear mongering resulted in nothing. Instead the House Un-American Activities Committee held him in contempt of Congress, threw him in jail, and took away his livelihood all because a bunch of rich people felt guilty they couldn’t fight the Cold War abroad. So they willingly brought it home and did immense, irrevocable damage.
What makes Trumbo’s story worthy of cinematic glory is that he never wavered in his First Amendment rights. He didn’t kowtow, name names, or stop fighting. He proved a subversive activist who, as this film tells it, practically stopped the blacklist single-handedly—from a leading-by-example position, there were obviously many others who helped. That’s not to say he didn’t have flaws, but Roach and company allow us to weigh them against his heroism. His return after jail was trying for wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and kids (namely eldest daughter Nikki played by Madison Wolfe in idealistic youth and Elle Fanning in rebellious young adulthood) and his lifestyle did go against his politics to a point as Hird maintained, but he had a plan and it worked.
Cranston is fantastic in the lead role with a regal amount of patience and calm to walk away from altercations with the ignorant public and former associates. Right from the start his Trumbo is being vilified and demeaned on film sets by director Sam Wood (John Getz). He’s marginalized and weakly given ultimatums that could never stick in a capitalistic society wherein studio heads needed to look the other way politically when they had a communist cash cow ready to scribe a new classic. Cranston takes it in stride when necessary and amps up the emotion when Trumbo must rally the troops. He plays the role as intelligent, likeable, and just enough ego to let the rough patches where he couldn’t turn off the fight authentically interject.
The role of villain is in a broad sense the MPAPAI and American public, but in the context of the film it’s also Hopper. Mirren relishes the opportunity to sink her teeth into someone so over-the-top vile. She’s all faux smile in gaudy hats ready to out whomever she wants as a self-proclaimed moral authority despite sending hardworking folk to the breadlines with the stroke of her pen. It’s the second most memorable character in a film chock full of personalities with Stuhlbarg continuing a great 2015 as the torn Robinson, Goodman loving every minute as a brutishly realist producer of B-movie schlock, and Louis C.K. finding an empathetic dimension he usually can’t outside his TV show “Louie”. Everyone is at the top of his/her game.
And while I said Trumbo’s tale is less intriguing than those around him picking sides, his is just as entertaining. From behind the scenes maneuvering to inexplicably win two Oscars despite not being allowed to write Hollywood screenplays to the closed-room dealings with those in the industry unafraid to work with real talent no matter their stature, you can’t help but get invested in the roller coaster. There are some laughs thanks to the absurdity of Congress believing movies held hidden agendas to give America over to Russia as well as Cranston’s Trumbo’s wit, but the film is by no means a comedy. This is serious—albeit glamorized—stuff, a malicious blight that the film provides a necessary spotlight on to remember to never let it happen again.
 Bryan Cranston (left) stars as Dalton Trumbo and Diane Lane (right) stars as Cleo Trumbo in Jay Roach’s TRUMBO, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
 Helen Mirren (left) stars as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston (right) stars as Dalton Trumbo in Jay Roach’s TRUMBO, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
 John Goodman stars as Frank King in Jay Roach’s TRUMBO, a Bleecker Street release. Credit : Hilary Bronwyn Gail / Bleecker Street