With “Bridge of Spies” behind us and “Life” and “Legend” in front of us, the parade of Oscar contenders set during the Cold War continues with “Trumbo.”
If it feels at times like a lecture, that’s because director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (who adapted Bruce Cook’s book “Dalton Trumbo”) don’t expect audiences to remember American history.
They spend the first third catching us up on the Communist scare of the late 1940s and 1950s and Hollywood’s blacklisting of writers and directors, whose party affiliations offended right-wingers.
Trumbo became one of the Hollywood Ten, who went to jail and/or couldn’t find work under their own names for years. After serving 11 months for contempt of Congress – he refused to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities – he paid his bills by churning out low-budget scripts for producers too small to care what Hollywood thought of their pinko employee.
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Here the movie suddenly becomes fresh: As Trumbo labors toward the day when he’ll put his own name on screenplays again, his ceaseless toil alienates his family. We wait to see whether alcohol, cigarettes, Benzedrine and sleepless nights will kill him before he’s restored to honor.
Jay Roach, who has spent most of his career making “Austin Powers” and “Fockers” comedies, directs broadly. Some of the most memorable scenes are funny ones: A low-budget moviemaker (John Goodman) threatens to use a baseball bat on a Hollywood fascist, while Trumbo’s patient wife (Diane Lane) teaches her impatient daughter (Elle Fanning) to take out her frustrations on a punching bag.
McNamara, who makes his feature debut after 30-plus years in television, also lays things on thickly. Hedda Hopper, the powerful columnist who set out to ruin “subversives,” comes across as Satan’s handmaiden. (Helen Mirren has a good time with this.) McNamara stretches facts unnecessarily: J. Parnell Thomas, the congressman who hounded the Hollywood Ten, did end up in prison with two of them (Ring Lardner Jr. and Lester Cole), but not with Trumbo.
At first, the filmmakers seem to turn their subject into a patient, forgiving, resourceful saint. But as self-interest, frustration and anxiety seep in after Trumbo leaves prison, Bryan Cranston’s portrayal takes off. The more complicated the character becomes, the more Cranston brings to the role.
The film argues Trumbo was the most talented screenwriter of his generation. (He was surely the best of the Hollywood Ten.)
People have forgotten he won a National Book Award for the novel “Johnny Got His Gun” and two Oscars – neither under his name – in the ’50s for “The Brave One” and “Roman Holiday.” His peak came in 1960 with “Spartacus” and “Exodus,” both about struggles for independence and identity against oppressors.
But the patrician Trumbo, who once said of himself, “I fought fire with oil,” articulated the view of the common man in film after film, from “Road Gang” in 1936 to “Papillon” in 1973.
“Democracy means people can say what they want to,” he noted. “All the people. It means that they can vote as they wish. It means that they can worship God in any way they feel right, and that includes Christians and Jews and voodoo doctors as well.” Hard to imagine a more American sentiment than that.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Louis C.K.
Director: Jay Roach.
Length: 124 minutes.
Rating: R (language including some sexual references).