A Hollywood screenwriter goes broke fighting for his principles. Sounds like a biopic slog, and sometimes it is. Luckily, Trumbo has a powerhouse Bryan Cranston to light a fire under the moldier clichés in John McNamara’s script.
Cranston plays the hell out of Dalton Trumbo, who got rich writing movies in the 1930s and 1940s. Trumbo had a big personality to match his ego. He’d write in his bathtub, booze and cigarettes at the ready, barking at wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and their three children if they disturbed him.
Trumbo’s bubble burst when he joined the Communist Party. In 1947, he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, along with nine other screenwriters. He refused to name names and spent nearly a year in jail. As part of the blacklisted Hollywood 10, Trumbo lost job, home, fortune and famous friends, and used a pseudonym to write Roman Holiday and The Brave One, winning two Oscars that he couldn’t take credit for.
Kudos to director Jay Roach for not wallowing in misery. His movie is bracing and buoyant when Trumbo takes on gossip gorgon Hedda Hopper (a wicked Helen Mirren) and writes cheapies for the King brothers (Stephen Root and a hilarious John Goodman). When Kirk Douglas hired Trumbo to write Spartacus in 1960, the Commie witch hunt was exposed as the sham it was. Witch hunts haven’t gone, they’ve gone global (ask the folks at Charlie Hebdo). Cranston shows us there’s nothing retro about watching Trumbo in his glory, speaking truth to power.