Trumbo ***

A solid yet modest biography about a true Hollywood legend.

Is it worth $10? Yes

With winning performances, especially by Bryan Cranston as the eponymous protagonist, and snappy writing, “Trumbo” entertains and educates. Despite being a solid effort, though, it never quite reaches greatness.

The film depicts the roughly 15-year period (mid-1940s to late-1950s) in which Dalton Trumbo was at the receiving end of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s wrath. This was a time of mass hysteria as the US got swept up in the “red scare,” a fear that soviet spies were secretly infiltrating the country in order to overthrow it. An American communist party member, Dalton Trumbo fell into the committee’s crosshairs as they zealously tried to weed out these “insidious threats.” In these paranoid times, Trumbo went from a successful career as the highest paid screenwriter of his day to being blacklisted and jailed for refusing to testify in front of HUAC. The movie goes on to dramatize how he managed to survive these times by writing under pseudonyms (though, sadly, “Heisenberg” was not one of them).

Trumbo’s story is by its very nature interesting and essential. There’s much to learn from what he and the rest of the “Hollywood Ten” (as he and his fellow persecuted writers were called) went through; especially as we are still prone to mass hysteria today. But because of its setting and the way that it’s intertwined with that era’s Hollywood elite, “Trumbo” isn’t just a dry history lesson.

Yes, the casting choices do lead, at first, to shocked proclamations of, “that’s not John Wayne!” or, “that’s not Kirk Douglas!” but the shock wears off quickly as the actors settle into their roles. I wouldn’t call what they do subtle, but they do use restraint to suggest these Hollywood legends rather than outright imitation or, worse, ghastly make-up (although Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) does look more like Danny Thomas than the Oscar winning actor). Credit should be given, then, to the make-up department for their restrained work that, thankfully, spares us a “Madam Tussauds, Live!” experience. 

But the movie’s main attraction is Bryan Cranston. His transformation into the title character is fantastic and a joy to behold, even if it isn’t completely seamless. If there’s a problem, it’s that he comes off as if he’s “Acting!” with a capital “A.” He doesn’t chew the scenery exactly, but he does nibble at it. Still, quibbles aside, he is very good in the role.

The script by John McNamara is also worth noting. It’s not perfect, but it’s filled with the kind of crackling dialogue and bon mots that Trumbo himself used to put into his screenplays. And this style punches up some great scenes such as a verbal bout between Trumbo and John Wayne (David James Elliott), or a moment when Frank King (John Goodman) takes a bat to a HUAC flunky – who unwisely tries to intimidate the B-filmmaker- to let him know what he thinks of his threats.  

The story moves at a good clip, so as to not overstay its welcome. This helps overcome the direction by Jay Roach (of “Austin Powers” fame). Though his work is competent, it does border on the banal. Indeed, the look and feel of the movie, with its flat lighting and staid camera work, is that of a TV movie.

But “Trumbo” does have more serious problems. As fun as the writing can be, it’s a little simplistic at times. Following his stint in jail, Trumbo becomes an emotional bully toward his three children, making too many demands and callously ignoring them as they grow up. Apparently this goes on for years, but these deep psychological problems are resolved in a few minutes by Trumbo’s wife, Cleo (Diane Lane) as she eventually sits him down and firmly calls him out on his behavior. And just like that, by scenes end, he snaps out of it and apologizes. Problem solved, a little too easily.

This scene brings me to another of the movie’s problems. Diane Lane is a fantastic actress, but she is completely wasted in this movie. The argument between the two characters is the only time that she is allowed to string more than few sentences together; otherwise, she mostly stands in the background looking beautiful (something she doesn’t exactly have to work hard at) and pensive.

And nothing leads me to my third problem: the portrayal of Hedda Hopper. Helen Mirren does a fantastic job with the role; the problem is how Hopper is written.  It’s written well enough that we understand who she is: a gossip columnist whose poison pen can make or break careers. And what she does with this power: she outs the people she thinks are a communist scourge. But we never get the sense of why she does it. Apparently, she believes in the tripe she’s spewing, but there’s no explanation as to why she believes it. And without it, she comes off as a two dimensional villain.

While these complaints do lower the film from great to good, “Trumbo” is still an entertaining, well-acted and -written film that depicts an important time in our history that we must never forget, lest we repeat it.

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