BWW Review: TRUMBO Is Solid, But Bryan Cranston is Brilliant

Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston in TRUMBO.
Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

TRUMBO opens in 1947, the year the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to convene hearings with the express purpose of rooting out communists and communist sympathizers in the film industry. Before even meeting our protagonist, Dalton Trumbo, the film reminds us that there was a time, before slogans like "every Communist is Moscow's spy" became commonplace, that many Americans joined the Communist Party. Trumbo himself joined in 1943, well before the Cold War and the Red Scare caused the U.S. government and many Americans to turn a jaundiced eye toward party members.

In 1947 the Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) we meet is a successful writer, just signed by MGM's Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) to a record-breaking three-year deal that will make him the highest paid writer in Hollywood. From the get-go, Trumbo is established as eccentric, the kind of man who comfortably writes in the bathtub on a makeshift table. He is man of his time, chain smoking from a jaunty cigarette holder while hunched over a typewriter henpecking out his latest script.

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in TRUMBO.
Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

But he is also an outsider: first as a writer, a director noting early that Trumbo is "among us, not one of us," and then for his politics, called a "traitor" and a "swimming pool Soviet." It's not long before Trumbo is subpoenaed to testify before HUAC and, unsurprisingly, refuses to answer their questions, as do nine others. The so-called "Hollywood Ten" are charged with contempt of court and eventually found guilty. Trumbo makes the conscious decision to play the odds, take the risk, and he loses.

After almost a year in prison, and his record-breaking contract broken by Mayer, Trumbo is released and returns home to find himself blacklisted. Thanks to the work of HUAC and famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), no major studio will hire him. For the next 13 years, he pens low-budget films under assumed names (including one that wins Trumbo, or "Robert Rich," an Oscar) and works toward regaining everything he, and many others, lost.

TRUMBO is well-written, an unsurprising revelation since it is essentially a film with three writers: Bruce Cook, the writer of Dalton Trumbo, the book on which the film is based; John McNamara, the screenwriter; and Trumbo himself -- a multiple Academy Award winning writer whose words, Louis C.K.'s Arlen Hird jokes, sound like they should be "chiseled in a rock." Words are Trumbo's forte, so quips and one-liners, as well as ennobling assertions, liberally pepper the script.

Director Jay Roach has turned out a solid film, one that allows his actors to take center stage and shine -- and he's got quite a group of actors. Cranston beautifully embodies Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo is principled and dogged but better yet clever, a complete smart-ass. He's also flawed, short-tempered and myopic, qualities exacerbated by the likes of Hopper, the Motion Picture Alliance, and HUAC. With his family, Trumbo is most human -- in all the best and worst ways. Trumbo's relationship to his family, particularly his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and his oldest child Nikola (Elle Fanning), allows us to track the strain of the blacklist on the man.

Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane in TRUMBO.
Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

Lane's Cleo is refreshing -- a woman, and a wife, who isn't nagging her husband or constantly imploring him to think about the children. That said, however, her understanding and "quietness," as Trumbo calls it, pushes to the edges of credulity. On the other end of the spectrum, Mirren's virulent anti-communist Hopper, or "the lady with the big hat," is a woman on a mission -- unapologetically vicious, especially as she attempts to browbeat and coerce men like Mayer and Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman).

Like any period piece set in Hollywood, stars abound -- sometimes in newsreels or Oscar clips, or just as voices on the radio, and of course as characters. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Edward G. Robinson, a man (not a character) in an understandably tough position. He plays the role well, the struggle clear on his face as the film progresses. On the other side of the political aisle is David James Elliott's John Wayne, who Cranston has an electric encounter with early in the film. O'Gorman captures a polished, all-American vibe with his Kirk Douglas and it is juxtaposed nicely with Christian Berkel as the very European Otto Preminger, who successfully (and amusingly) ends Christmas for the Trumbo family in 1958.

C.K.'s Arlen Hird is an important character, and while he doesn't detract from the film per se, it's tough to get a sense of how much acting he is actually doing. Alan Tudyk, as fellow writer Ian McLellan Hunter, is a welcome presence on screen, as is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Trumbo's fellow inmate Virgil, but both don't have much to do. John Goodman, however, takes a memorable turn as Frank King, a purveyor of crappy cinema, a man who readily admits he makes "garbage." Goodman doles out a little vigilante ... well, it's not quite justice, and it's not quite comeuppance, but it's still incredibly satisfying in one of the film's most fun scenes.

Dalton Trumbo is the writer of such films as SPARTACUS, ROMAN HOLIDAY, EXODUS, and THE BRAVE ONE. All are films that, if HUAC and Hopper and the Motion Picture Alliance had their way during a dark chapter of American history, he'd either never have written or never received credit for writing. Trumbo's is a story worth telling, and a movie certainly worth watching.

TRUMBO, starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, and Michael Stuhlbarg, is rated R for language including some sexual references.

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From This Author Natalie de la Garza