“Trumbo” is a warm and witty profile in courage. It’s about the principled, prolific and unfairly punished screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, he of “The Hollywood Ten,” men persecuted for their beliefs during the Hollywood witch hunt that took place during the Red Scare of the 1940s and ’50s.
And if that name and those phrases don’t ring a bell, this Jay Roach film, essentially a very good R-rated TV movie, makes a perfectly entertaining history lesson.
Bryan Cranston plays the dapper and erudite Trumbo, a man his peers seem to resent, or at least have limited patience for.
“Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled into a rock?”
We meet Trumbo and his fellow Hollywood liberals — some of them even members of the Communist Party — just after World War II. The House Unamerican Activities Committee, a shameful and shockingly long-lived exercise in political grand-standing and civil rights trampling, is just gearing up for a witch hunt.
And some of Hollywood — directors, the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (a viperish Helen Mirren) and draft dodging he-man John Wayne (David James Elliott) — seem to welcome it.
“Go off and join the Bolshoi Ballet,” the Duke suggests.
“They’re all Nazis,” their targets insist. “They’re just too cheap to buy the uniforms.”
Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), his pal,the gangster star Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), and other writers (Louis C.K. is Arlen Herd, Alan Tudyck is Ian McKellan Hunter) try to debate with the so-called Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. To no avail.
The subpoenas are handed down, a strategy is devised. And we see a defiant Trumbo stand up to the little bullies of Congress, and face contempt charges.
Fine. Then, a Supreme Court justice dies, the court tilts conservative, and the entire Ten face prison. Trumbo, a raging success in Hollywood with a ranch, a beautiful ex-dancer wife (Diane Lane) and three kids (Elle Fanning plays the oldest), manfully takes his punishment for principles.
But when they get out, the Alliance, and its most virulent mouthpiece Hopper, bully the studios into blacklisting them. None can work. Or so the super patriots think. The writers have other ideas.
I like the way Dean O’Gorman (as Kirk Douglas), Stuhlbarg and Elliott suggest rather than full-on impersonate their iconic screen characters. Elliott plays Wayne as big, cunning and maybe a little petty. He brings to mind what a Wayne friend said back in the day, “For a big man, the Duke could be awfully small.”
Stuhlbarg, having the greatest fall of his career thanks to “Pawn Sacrifice,” “Steve Jobs” and “Trumbo,” gives us little of the “Nyah, take’em out back, boys” Edward G. This is the urbane, effete art collector who works so he can build his collection. Fanning is terrific as always as a daughter who inherits her father’s sense of fair play, and his stubbornness.
Louis C.K. has a big role, and never for a second makes us forget he’s a man of his time. He’s out of place and miscast as the sickly Herd.
But for all the period detail — clips from real Hollywood figures standing up to (Gregory Peck, Lucille Ball) the witch hunt, and those embracing it (Reagan, Robert Taylor) and able supporting work, it is Cranston who must carry the picture, and does. He wears the up-turned mustache, the horn-rimmed glasses and cigarette holder with ease.
But the “TV movie” label begins and ends with his performance. There’s little to suggest this little man (Cranston isn’t) is larger-than-life. It’s an intimate (lots of close-ups), small-screen performance that doesn’t give us the bombast, speaking to history, that the character demands.
“There are many angry and ignorant people in the world,” Trumbo tells his children, and us. “They seem to be breeding in record numbers.”
In his public appearances on film and TV still available, Trumbo never uttered an unconsidered, unquotable thought. His words read like thunder, even if his voice rarely did. Cranston and the screenplay seem more muted than history remembers Dalton Trumbo.
But the man’s wit and the actor’s comic timing serve “Trumbo” beautifully, and this spills over into the script and the rest of the movie. John Goodman and Stephen Root are hilarious as cut-rate film producers who hire the blacklisted writers (under assumed names) for a song. To write really bad movies.
“Look, we bought a gorilla suit. We’ve gotta use it.”
And the comic director Roach (“Meet the Parents,” “Austin Powers”) makes these two hours saunter by, a tragedy regarded today as both a dark period in American history, and a farce.
It’s a shame the movie never puffs up into the sort of grand statement delivered in epic form that they plainly intended it to be.
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Michael Stuhlbarg
Credits: Directed by Jay Roach, script by John McNamara. A Bleecker St. release.
Running time: 2:04