Bryan Cranston is Dalton Trumbo and leader of the Hollywood Ten. But can playing a great dramatist make for great drama?
It’s an old adage that Hollywood likes best those special movies about Hollywood. Even better are movies that depict Tinsletown as the saints overcoming the sinners. This is perhaps why a film such as Argo can win Best Picture while far more ambitious fare like L.A. Confidential is left only to applaud from the sidelines. Yet this week’s Trumbo attempts to have it both ways by eulogizing the martyrs of what is honestly one of Hollywood’s darkest (and most cowardly) hours.
This biopic from director Jay Roach attempts to recite with the clearest and, at times, most softly spoken tenor that grim political reality of when the Red Scare crept into the land of dreams, and 10 of Hollywood’s brightest saw their lives turned into a nightmare. Indeed, the “Hollywood Ten” are infamous as the first group of artists and filmmakers who refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and for their First Amendment bravery they faced jail time and over a decade of blacklisting from 1947 to 1960.
The reason the blacklist came to an end at all is in large part thanks to Dalton Trumbo, one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history. Before he was blacklisted, Trumbo penned such classics as A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). Afterwards, he penned a few more like Gun Crazy (1950) and the legendary Roman Holiday (1953). The difference was, however, he could not put his name on the latter films and had to ask for the lowest of salaries.
Trumbo had joined the U.S. Communist Party in 1943, and because he refused to say who else in Hollywood had become a member once the Cold War started, he had his career ruined, he spent 11 months in prison after being held in contempt of Congress by HUAC, and generally his family life was downsized from the pastoral Beverly Hills ideal to a cramped house where he was mostly turning out cheap scripts by the dozen for Poverty Row and under a series of pseudonyms.
The movie Trumbo dramatizes this catastrophic fall and the injustice of it all in the most standard of biographic terms. But there is nothing standard about Bryan Cranston’s performance here.
As Dalton Trumbo, Cranston finally gets a post-Breaking Bad big screen role worthy of his talents. Curling his voice around a put-upon Western accent that was likely very intentional for even the real Trumbo, there is a theatrical twinkle to Cranston’s performance. By all accounts, Trumbo was a larger than life personality, and Cranston exudes that self-satisfied intelligence by embodying a man who likes to remind folks in the friendliest and warmest of affectations that he is without question always the smartest guy in the room. One of the better lines in Trumbo is when Cranston boasts that he fights the good fight with the purity of Jesus, but he intends to also win via the cunning of Satan.
Behind inch-thick glasses and with a perpetual cigarette in his hand, Cranston definitely can resemble the crafty confidence of the latter while always standing up for his virtuous First Amendment cause.
Unfortunately, the film he inhabits does not wish to explore the grayness that Dalton verbally teases and instead depicts a very black-and-white world where Dalton is indeed a Christ like figure, and he will purge the dark impulses of Hollywood’s souls—which according to Trumbo amounts to just merely Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliot).
Even Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) gets a pass for firing Trumbo from MGM immediately after his HUAC hearing, because apparently Hedda threatened him with a single Anti-Semitic column. To be sure, Hopper was a pernicious monster behind her Los Angeles Times typewriter, and she wallowed in jingoistic, small-minded bigotry. But the film’s desire to simplify “the villains,” much like its narrative beats, always feels like a form of self-censorship all its own. Mirren is of course divinely malicious in her patriotism (Elliot fares less impressively as Wayne), but they seemingly only hint at the political realities and cowardice of their time.
Similarly, Trumbo’s home life trauma falls into overly familiar storytelling beats of early optimism and third act conflict deriving from his refusal to treat his family with enough respect during this decade-long hardship. Embodying that aggrievement are Diane Lane as Dalton’s wife Cleo and Elle Fanning as Niki Trumbo, Dalton’s eldest teenage daughter. Each actress gets a few nice moments, but neither character appears as fleshed out as the actual supporting parts in Trumbo’s better screenplays. And Lane’s Cleo feels especially muted by the constraints of being trapped in the supporting wife trope.
Among the better supporting work not from Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg is memorably conflicted as an early liberal-turned-HUAC-snitch, Edward G. Robinson. There is also plenty of other star casting and supporting work that is memorable, including Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird. But the fact that Arlen Hird is a fictional member of the Hollywood Ten underscores a recurring issue of the film.
Roach previously was best known for his broad PG-13 comedies like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents. However, he lately has been making a career as the helmer of many of HBO’s most headline-grabbing political dramas, such as Recount (the Florida Bush v. Gore movie with a terrific Tom Wilkinson as James Baker) and Game Change (the Sarah Palin movie with a fabulous performance by Julianne Moore as the half-a-term governor).
Despite its theatrical release, Trumbo feels very in-line with those two TV productions: it has a good message; it revisits an issue that still makes some people uncomfortable; and it tells its story in a very benign and brightly lit way with little sense of escalation. They’re more respectable dramatizations than great dramas. And they also rely on one or two fantastic performances that elevate the material into something worthwhile—contrasting the often cut-and-dry narrative.
In Trumbo’s case, that is of course Cranston at his most playful and bedeviling. Yet, this passion of the screenwriter feels like a tribulation on the cross than a pleasant stroll up a hill, comfortingly and leisurely reaching Spartacus and its Kirk Douglas salvation for Dalton Trumbo. Because again, Hollywood are the saints, right?
The funny thing is I imagine the real Trumbo would be eager to spend more time with the sinners than these filmmakers tended to be.