Kirk Douglas is too skinny. That’s about the only thing wrong with Jay Roach’s Trumbo. And since Roach’s dramatized account of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s (Bryan Cranston) difficulties with the Hollywood Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s only touches on movie star Douglas for a short time, it doesn’t matter too much about his physique, even though actor Dean O’Gorman, as Douglas, is depicted running around bare-chested on the set of Spartacus.
What really matters about Trumbo himself, the Hollywood Ten, and the mood of the post-World-War-II United States is captured decisively by the film, adapted by writer John McNamara from the book by Bruce Cook. It’s not a happy story, but it’s a must-see for anyone who wants to understand the complicated cultural undercurrents of this country. The movie depicts Trumbo as one of the most successful writers in the movie business in 1947, but his politics, along with those of some of his colleagues, come under government suspicion by members of the US Congress’ so-called House Un-American Activities Committee, which is worried about Communist influence in motion pictures.
And so the writer of such wartime hits as A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is publicly grilled in Congressional hearings, accused of being a member of the Communist Party (which he actually was), found guilty of contempt, and sentenced to prison without a jury trial. When he gets out, Trumbo finds he has been blackballed — major studios have decided that he and the other “subversives” can no longer work under their own names for screen credit on Hollywood films.
Trumbo, a Colorado native of independent spirit with a wife, Cleo Trumbo (Diane Lane), and three children, promptly continues writing screenplays under assumed “front” names, but the arrangement, which goes on for years, takes a toll on the man, his associates, and his family. Actor Cranston, known to TV viewers as both the indulgent dad on Malcolm in the Middle and the lethally mercurial high-school chemistry teacher turned meth lord in Breaking Bad, paints Trumbo not as a martyr but as a reluctant underdog with superlative survival skills — armed with cigarette holder and cocktails (and later, with little white pills), sitting for hours in his bathtub work station, pounding out rewrites and original scripts, then shopping his work to anyone brave enough to talk to him, including crass producer Frank King (John Goodman).
Arrayed against Trumbo and fellow outcasts such as writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K., in fine form) are a curious combine of reactionary witch hunters and opportunists. Cowboy hero John Wayne (David James Elliott) is a blustering boob. Liberal-to-a-degree actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) gets into a classic moral bind. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer (Richard B. Portnow) is in the curious position of being a powerful boss in Los Angeles but just another insecure Jewish businessman in the eyes of WASP-y Washington pols.
Most loathsome of all is the influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, a veritable neo-Nazi portrayed by Helen Mirren with fangs bared. Her scene jerking Mayer’s chain in his office may startle 21st-century audiences unaccustomed to hearing hate speech from the likes of Ms. Mirren. Trumbo outfoxes them all with his combination of plain-spoken egalitarianism and bull-headedness. Because he is a gifted storyteller but also because he is a genuine civil libertarian, Trumbo eventually attracts supporters with clout, chief among them actor-producer Douglas.
Cranston and Mirren turn in remarkable performances, and director Roach, known mainly for lightweight comedies (the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents franchises), flexes socially conscious muscles he possibly never knew he had. The ordeal of Dalton Trumbo, colorful as it is, is yet another shameful episode of homegrown injustice exposed in movie houses this year. Maybe we should declare “the bad old days” an official subgenre.