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Trumbo

Trumbo is a biopic of Dalton Trumbo, here immortalized by Bryan Cranston. If you don’t know Trumbo’s name… well, there’s a reason.

The film opens with a few title cards helpfully reminding us that there was a time when the Soviets weren’t our enemies. No, there was a time in WWII when the capitalist Americans and the communist Russians were both at war with the fascist Nazis. The Russians were our allies at the time, so nobody thought anything of it when so many Americans lined up to join the Communist Party. Flash forward to the end of the war, when we all conveniently remembered that Stalin was a bloodthirsty maniac. So we declared “war” (I can’t possibly emphasize those quotation marks enough) on the Soviets, which meant that there was now a witch hunt going on for anyone who ever joined the Communist Party when it was perfectly acceptable to do so.

The filmmakers clearly state that the House Un-American Activities Committee was particularly interested in show business. The PTB wanted to make absolutely certain that there were no communists in Hollywood using the power of mass media to spread any kind of anti-patriotic message. And naturally, the studio execs wanted to stay in business by assuring moviegoers that there were no perceived traitors on the payroll.

This brings us to Trumbo, who is indeed an avowed communist. It’s not that he’s a Soviet spy or someone who hates his country — far from either. He’s just a man who gets worked up over workers’ rights, and he hates the notion of institutions run by bullying. More than that, he’s a writer who believes very passionately in the First Amendment.

In fact, Trumbo is a massively successful writer who’s just signed a contract that would make him the highest-paid screenwriter in the world. But that falls through when HUAC sends a subpoena for Trumbo and nine of his colleagues. The Hollywood Ten asserted their right to freedom of speech, refused to testify, and were imprisoned for contempt of Congress.

Trumbo got out of prison roughly a year later, and he had been blacklisted. No one in Hollywood wanted to go anywhere near him. So he continued writing under a pseudonym. In fact, he ghost-wrote Roman Holiday and The Brave One, both of which would go on to win Oscars that Trumbo couldn’t even claim for many years afterward. And while that was going on, Trumbo earned a steady paycheck churning out B-movie scripts for King Brothers Productions. The King Brothers themselves (played here by John Goodman and Stephen Root) were such greedy and immoral bastards that they didn’t care about hiring blacklisted talent if they came cheap, you see.

So let’s back up a bit. Here we have a story about government officials stirring up paranoia and xenophobia for political gain. It’s also a story about celebrities getting publicly vilified over private matters because mass media is too nosy for anyone’s good. Needless to say, the events depicted in this movie are only too relevant today.

That said, there are times when the plot meanders a bit too much. It certainly doesn’t help that the plot spans about ten years (not counting an epilogue set in 1970) in the space of two hours. That’s a lot of shit to keep track of in so little time, and it doesn’t help that Trumbo drives right through it all at top speed with blinders on. Trumbo just writes and writes and writes, to the point where there’s a very real question of what he’s trying to accomplish.

Trumbo doesn’t act like he’s running himself ragged for the money or the fame. He’s accused of having an ego problem, and while that probably is a factor, it feels like there’s something else going on. And he’s not trying to sneak any covert communist messages onto movie screens — in fact, he seems determined to keep his head down and do just the opposite.

Ultimately, in what’s admittedly a very powerful scene, Trumbo comes to realize that he’s writing because that’s all he knows how to do. More than that, he’s deliberately fighting against anyone who gets in his way because that’s all he’s been doing ever since he first joined the Communist Party. As far as character development goes, it’s brilliant stuff. But on a greater scale, that isn’t much thematic material to hang a movie on.

I get what the film was trying to go for: To show the futility of legislating thought. Because there’s no way to stop a person from thinking, there’s no point in trying to outlaw thought or declare war against an idea. Indeed, blacklisting people for their legal right to express whatever political/economic/religious idea they want only serves to collectively dumb us down, give bullies the power they’ll take at any cost, and ruin the lives of perfectly innocent people. And there are times when this argument is effectively made in creative ways. However, when so much of the movie is devoted to scenes of Trumbo working himself to the bone in the service of typing out mindless dreck, the point tends to get lost.

Additionally, Trumbo states in the epilogue that there were no heroes or villains during the whole blacklist fiasco. It was all just a bunch of people forced to hurt each other, trading pains that they would rather not have to exchange. And in some cases, that’s absolutely true. An especially heartbreaking case in point would be the great actor Edward G. Robinson (here played by Michael Stuhlbarg), who was basically forced to sell out his Communist friends to HUAC because he — unlike his friends behind the scenes — didn’t have the luxury of acting under a pseudonym.

Unfortunately, the message gets diluted when we’ve got so many characters who were quite clearly included to be villains. One example is J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont), a fiercely anti-communist congressman who’s made to look like a corrupt and hypocritical clown. There’s another character played by Dan Bakkedahl, and that really should be all I have to say. I’m sorry, I don’t mean any disrespect toward the guy, but Bakkedahl has a very narrow range that consists pretty much entirely of “slimeball”.

But by far the most prominent example is Hedda Hopper, a gossip columnist played to the hilt by Helen Mirren. Because Hopper’s son is in the armed forces, she feels a particularly overzealous need to hunt down communists and have them run out of Hollywood. Which she does by way of incredibly vile smear campaigns and relentless capitalist propaganda. And she does all of this while chewing scenery, pissing off everyone without shouting distance, and wearing the most outrageously flamboyant clothing she possibly can. (Kudos to costume designer Daniel Orlandi, by the way.) I’m sorry, but if the film is trying to tell me that there were no villains in this whole debacle, the filmmakers shouldn’t have given us a character who was this much fun to hate.

Which brings me to a far more crucial point: Every single actor in this movie is perfectly cast, and they are all an absolute joy to watch. Granted, some of them fare better than others — it’s a shame to see Michael Stuhlbarg so persistently typecast as a nebbish loser, but he does it so well. Likewise, Stephen Root is another actor who tends to get typecast very often, but that does a lot to establish a character who gets minimal screentime.

Kudos are due to Elle Fanning, who plays the neglected teenage daughter in a way that felt charming and sympathetic without getting too annoying. I was also fond of Diane Lane’s performance — between this and Man of Steel, she’s got the “quiet and maternal pillar of strength” persona locked down. Alan Tudyk brings a lot of charm to what’s otherwise a thankless role, and John Goodman steals every scene he’s in. I must also give credit to David James Elliott and Dean O’Gorman, who respectively turn in delightful impersonations of John Wayne and Kirk Douglas.

But the MVP of the supporting cast has to be Louis C.K. in the role of screenwriter Arlen Hird. Here’s a guy whose wife has just left him, and we learn early on that he’s been diagnosed with lung cancer. So he’s the loose cannon of Trumbo’s communist friends. After all, Hird can afford to be as loud as he wants, completely unafraid of screaming communist talking points until he pisses everyone off, because it’s not like he has anything to lose. Unfortunately, Hird is too caught up in his own suffering to fully comprehend how his reckless actions could affect his colleagues after he’s gone. C.K. does a phenomenal job with the role, delivering pathos and humor in equal measure.

But of course this is Cranston’s show. I don’t think I’ll court much controversy when I say that Bryan Cranston is among the best actors living among us today, and this movie is proof positive from the first frame to the last. His performance here is absolutely fearless, and his portrayal of Trumbo is simply magnetic. Cranston radiates such charm and charisma that he perfectly sells this character as a genius who’s worthy to be one of the world’s greatest screenwriters and a pivotal figure among his local communist fellows.

Special attention is due to the scene in which Trumbo confronts Robinson, after the latter gave his damning testimony to HUAC. In any other movie, and in the hands of any other actor, that would have been the scene in which Trumbo gets up onto his soapbox and demonizes Robinson. But Cranston turns the scene on its head by expressing nothing but pity for his former friend. With nothing but raw emotion, he makes it clear that Trumbo sincerely regrets that this was how things had to be. Cranston is implicitly asking us to find some sympathy for this little snitch, and damned if he doesn’t sell it.

Of course, it bears mentioning that Cranston gets a lot of help from writer John McNamara (here making his film debut after a lengthy career in television). The dialogue is whip-smart, with one incredible line after another. Though most of the great quips come from Trumbo, and Cranston delivers them so beautifully that it further helps to sell us on Trumbo’s reputation as a world-class writer.

Trumbo may have a few pacing issues, and there are times throughout when the intended message slips out of focus. Even so, the actors are all so brilliant and they’ve got such outstanding dialogue to work with that the end result is endlessly captivating to watch. This one absolutely deserves to be an awards contender, and it should get Bryan Cranston a nomination at the very least. Definitely one to watch for.

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