With his transformation into Dalton Trumbo and an Academy Award nomination for his performance in the role, Bryan Cranston has made the transition from TV star to movie star. This only builds on the stature of the acclaimed actor. Someday, he may add an Oscar to the row of Emmys and the Tony he’s already won. In Trumbo, Cranston carries the entire film and brings to life one of he most colorful and controversial men in Hollywood history.
In the 1930s and 40s, Dalton Trumbo was on of the most reliable and profitable screenwriters in the movies. Producers loved him because he worked fast and was willing to take on any project, no matter the genre. Trumbo was an oddball. Famous for sitting in a bath and working on scripts, with legal pad propped up above the water and a glass of whiskey close by, Trumbo was a Communist who fought for social justice and workers rights, but he loved his wealth and living the good life. With his wife Cleo (portrayed by the wonderful Diane Lane in the film) and their three children, they lived on a plush ranch with their own lake.
It was Trumbo’s Communist affiliation after World War II that halted his career for a period of time, and that’s where the film begins. The Red Scare in Hollywood, perpetuated by members of the press like Hedda Hopper (portrayed by Helen Mirren), begins to take hold, anti-Soviet entertainers like John Wayne (David James Elliot) assemble to weed out “traitors” and prove to the masses that there is no propaganda coming from Tinseltown. The movies are as American as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.
Among the targets of this group of civil minded actors are Trumbo and his small group of like-minded artists who shared his left leaning ideology, including Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Arlen Hird (a composite character portrayed by Louis CK). What follows in the movie is an account of Trumbo’s stance against his former friends and employers, as well as the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Trumbo and ten of his fellow writers refuse to answer questions for Congress and are cited for contempt. This leads to a year in prison and getting blacklisted by Hollywood.
Despite being robbed of his livelihood, Trumbo hustles for work at a small studio (run by John Goodman and Stephen Root) writing low budget b-movies under a pseudonym. Because of the speed in which he writes (and the quality he brings to the otherwise dreadful movies), Trumbo soon has too much work and finds a way to get his fellow blacklisted writers hired.
It’s through this act of desperation, the need to keep his family from going under, that Trumbo gives the ultimate middle finger to HUAC and his enemies. He ends up winning two Academy Awards while being blacklisted, one for Roman Holiday (written before he went to jail and submitted under his friend’s name) and The Brave One (written for the low budget studio). Although he can’t accept the awards, word gets around that he was the author of these award-winning films and soon big wigs like Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) and Otto Preminger (Exodus) come calling.
John McNamara’s script hits all the right beats of a biopic, from the highs of Trumbo’s good life, to the lows of a friend’s death and alienating his family. It also has a moving speech at the end by Trumbo that takes place years later when the Writers Guild is honoring him. This final moment of redemption, and Cranston’s delivery make for one of the film’s most powerful moments. Jay Roach, the fine director whose career has taken him from comedy features to docudramas on HBO, does another excellent job behind the camera. His more substantive films seem to end up on cable, so it’s nice that he finally gets something with some weight released in the movie theaters.
The cast of the film is all-star, with the aforementioned Lane shining in all of her scenes. I sure wish someone would write her a part that wasn’t the “wife” or “mother.” She’s too great a talent to get relegated to such parts. Louis CK continues to impress with his dramatic chops, and Elle Fanning, a young actress who has never been bad in a film despite its quality, once again shines. If any actress has the talent to breakthrough ala Jennifer Lawrence or Brie Larson, it’s Fanning.
In the end though, this movie is all about Cranston and what he does in the film. Dalton Trumbo is one of those larger than life figures that any actor would love to play. Cranston really nails every humorous, indignant and wily moment in the film. He draws from his long history of drama and comedy to create a character that you want to root for and sometimes punch (for his pigheadedness). Despite his success on Breaking Bad, Cranston has been doing a lot of supporting roles in movies. Hopefully the success of Trumbo and his Academy Award nomination will convince studios that he can carry a movie and make it successful.