Silver Screen: Trumbo ****
For much of its first act, the biopic Trumbo threatens to be one of those perfunctory, self-satisfied Hollywood history lessons beloved by awards-nominating committees and not much by anyone else. All the familiar elements are present: title cards explaining the historical background, a showy digression into black-and-white film, actors edited into archival footage.
Director Jay Roach indulges in fusty condemnations of the Hollywood blacklist and stages parades of famous dead icons (John Wayne! Edward G. Robinson! Hedda Hopper!) with no novel commentary on the period. It’s a slightly more animated wax-museum exhibit.
Ironic, because it’s tough to imagine the film’s subject, outspoken writer Dalton Trumbo, ever sitting still long enough to please Madame Tussauds. Trumbo was a left-wing political firebrand, a war correspondent, the National Book Award-winning author of the classic antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, and an accomplished screenwriter whose many early credits included A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
Trumbo’s fame curdled into infamy when he became perhaps the most prominent and outspoken member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers banished from the movie business when the insidious House Un-American Activities Committee targeted them in an anti-Communist witch hunt.
Trumbo was a Communist, made little secret of it, but refused to name names, and so the peaceful father of three was sent to jail.
And it’s here, as Trumbo the man finds his nadir, that Trumbo the movie takes flight.
Star Bryan Cranston taps into Trumbo’s cantankerous energy and intellectual ferocity for a powerhouse performance that the movie can’t quite match until he’s jailed, forced to listen to radio broadcasts of betrayals by friends like Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the persecution of faithful comrades, including the tragic Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.). When at last he’s freed, Trumbo decides to force his way back into Hollywood, first in secret by passing scripts through fronts and pseudonyms, then fighting for screen credit and a restoration of dignity on his later award-winning scripts for the classics Roman Holiday and Spartacus.
Trumbo achieves a thrilling momentum as its hero rages against the dying of the projector bulb light. To feed his struggling family he allies himself with the sublimely self-interested schlockmeisters Frank and Hymie King (John Goodman and Stephen Root), who hire him to crank out B-movie scripts in secret with help from his pinko pals. It’s a delight to watch the tireless Trumbo work his way around the rigged system, turning his house into a secret screenplay factory that produced a lot of artless pap, but also some hidden gems. (Gun Crazy is an all-time classic noir flick.)
Trumbo occasionally lapses into tedious star worship. The film is enamored with the famous faces of yesteryear, whether (quite justifiably) vilifying self-serving blowhards like Wayne and Hopper (Helen Mirren) or fawning over the feisty Kirk Douglas (impressively impersonated by Dean O’Gorman). The film is most compelling when it chronicles the people behind the camera, or who have no interest in cameras at all— Trumbo, of course, but also the gloriously eccentric King brothers, beleaguered true believer Hird, and Trumbo’s own heroically accommodating family.
The ageless Diane Lane is relegated to the traditional dedicated-wife role, although more consideration is given to Trumbo’s daughter Niki (the terrific young Elle Fanning). More of their fascinating family dynamic would be welcome, and might also shed more light on the man himself. (The great writer and comedian Steve Martin later dated Trumbo’s youngest daughter Mitzi and wrote about his admiration for the whole Trumbo clan in his memoir Born Standing Up.)
The ghosts of that shaky first act occasionally haunt the rest of the movie, which lapses into more speechifying during its later moments. But despite employing a few overly familiar tricks, Trumbo mostly does a fine job exploring its subject’s considerable contradictions as a luxury-loving advocate for wealth redistribution, and egoist who advocated for others, and a hardheaded friend who both demanded and gave much to those closest to him. It’s a thoughtful, funny, sometimes intense tribute befitting the man himself.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.