Based on the biography, ‘Dalton Trumbo’, by Bruce Alexander Cook and directed by Jay Roach (the Austin Powers films, Meet the Parents) Trumbo details the life and career of Dalton Trumbo, portrayed with tremendous charisma by the Academy Award-nominated Bryan Cranston (TVs Breaking Bad), an elite and gifted Hollywood screenwriter who was Blacklisted – denied the right to work – for his support of Communism at a time when America was stricken with Post-WWII paranoia.
Dalton Trumbo was one of ten Hollywood screenwriters who were subpoenaed to testify before United States Congress, accused of inserting Communist propaganda into their screenplays. After spending time in prison for his ‘crimes’ he was forced to work under a pseudonym, in-turn risking the careers of anyone he worked with.
The film is thrilling as we watch Trumbo agonise over his work – often from the comforts of his bathtub, where he famously spent a significant amount of his writing time – in a race against time to save the ass of a producer behind schedule, or re-write scenes set to be shot that very same day. His challenge was to write screenplays without any shred of evidence to suggest that his voice was present in them, or include any material that could be scrutinised as propaganda.
There is a lot going on here, as the film attempts to cover many different elements of Trumbo’s life – his family; the increasingly stressed marriage to his supportive wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and the role his children played in getting his completed work covertly couriered around town. It also explores his relationship with fellow writers Arlen Hird (Louis C.K) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) and Democratic actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), his partnership with the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root), for whom he wrote The Brave One among many other low-budget B-movie scripts, which he also enlisted to other Blacklisted writers, and his collaboration with director Otto Preminger on Exodus and actor Kirk Douglas on Spartacus, both projects he was publicly credited for.
Trumbo is determined to please, above all, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable Hollywood-insider, introducing period stars and name-drops with glee. It is politically-lite and may play fast-and-loose with some of the events depicted (I don’t know), capturing the experience of Communist fear through the insular experience of the Blacklisters, and the contemptuous anti-Soviet industry figures – including celebrity columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and actor John Wayne (David James Elliot), who oppose them. Carried admirably by Cranston and an all-round excellent SAG-nominated cast, the film overcomes some sluggish patches but generally maintains a brisk pace. It offers a fascinating and often very funny insight into a genius of his craft, finding more success than certain other recent biopics (Hitchcock).
The central tension in the film comes through Trumbo never backing down from his politics; continuing to be outspoken and stubbornly opposing the belief that his screenplays were toxic to the industry and a threat to national security. It seems ridiculous now, but this was a different time. The film does take a biased stand – from inside the Trumbo comradeship – presenting any of the opposing criticism as petty and ridiculous.
The use of archival footage and re-enactments is clever – the courtroom scenes especially – and the make-up seamlessly and convincingly transforms the performers into their famous subjects. The chameleonic Cranston is excellent, elevating this good-looking production into a satisfying portrayal of a strange, larger-than-life individual whose role in shaping some of Hollywood’s most memorable productions cannot be overlooked.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Jay Roach
Writer(s): John McNamara
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K, John Goodman
Runtime: 124 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: February 18, 2016