Hollywood eats itself in Jay Roach’s comprehensively entertaining biopic of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, earning Bryan Cranston an Oscar nomination.
Writer's Blockby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Trumbo is a witty evocation of Hollywood’s least-fine hour – the dark days of the postwar communist witch hunts which led to the unjustified blacklisting of scores of screenwriters. This included its highest-earner – Dalton Trumbo, whose extravagant lifestyle, despite his political sympathies, earn him the epithet ‘swimming pool soviet’. Bryan Cranston’s performance has given him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He captures Trumbo’s mannerisms – his typing in the bath, his elegant cigarette holder – and is compelling as the rebel screenwriting genius, who defiantly refused to curb his eloquence, curb his wit or deny his communist principles in the face of the public inquiries of Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee.
After serving a jail sentence as a result, he was an unemployable pariah for many years, reduced at first to churning out scripts for a schlock-horror B-movie producers the King Brothers to support his family (Diane Lane and Elle Fanning). John Goodman is scene stealing as Frank King, unexpectedly handy with a baseball bat in defence of his right to employ Trumbo when told to fire him. For years, Trumbo’s name was erased from record. He was only able to write scripts under pseudonyms, winning two uncredited Oscars – for Roman Holiday in 1953, for which he used his friend Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) as a front man and The Brave One in 1956.
For or against Trumbo in ’50s Hollywood are actors portraying famous names including Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), Trumbo’s friend who caved in and recanted when his support for Trumbo brought his career to a full stop, and John Wayne (David James Elliott), to whom makes an elegant put-down about his war record. Their characters are effectively interleaved with archive footage as the film fades from colour to black and white and back again.
Helen Mirren is fabulous in a series of spectacular hats as bitchy gossip columnist doyenne Hedda Hopper, instrumental in victimising Trumbo. After he hit rock bottom, at last the tide unexpectedly turned for him in the 1960s. Kirk Douglas (The Hobbit star Dean O’Gorman) bravely insisted on giving Trumbo a screenwriting credit on his spectacular epic Spartacus, instead of the name Sam Jackson he had been using. Then director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel, complete with bird on shoulder) did the same for Exodus. The film ends triumphantly with Trumbo finally getting the Oscar he deserved, making the speech of his life to his peers.
Though director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) has kept the tone quite light, the film is factually fairly accurate and informative about injustices that had been swept under the carpet for years, and it’s an education in the history of the industry. Serious issues are shot through with humour in a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of a real-life – and very wily – Spartacus, who did indeed make a difference by standing up for the right to freedom of expression at what turned out to be great personal cost.
Trumbo is released on 5th February 2016 in the UK