The Film: Trumbo
The Pitch: Writing Bad
Number of Nominations: One
Which Category? Best Actor
Will it Win? No
The story of how Hollywood was caught up in Cold War paranoia and blacklisted The Hollywood Ten has been told before, in The Front and Guilty by Suspicion. You probably already know most of the details; how The House Committee on Un-American Activites subpaenaed suspected Communist screenwriters, how movie studios were quick to make them unemployable, and how they ended up in prison.
Trumbo, an enjoyable enough yet curiously unsatisfying comedy-drama, recounts this slice of history by focusing on the most famous of the Hollywood Ten, Dalton Trumbo, the flamboyant, irascible writer of A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Spartacus, Roman Holiday, and Exodus.
In 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs. Trumbo used words and wit to win two Academy Awards and expose the absurdity and injustice under the blacklist, which entangled everyone from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper to John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.
Trumbo is played by Bryan Cranston with a mixture of narcissism, bonhomie and venom. While his incarceration and treatment by studios was undoubtedly a travesty, Hollywood bigshots enjoyed seeing him brought down a peg because he was not especially well-liked. Even his Communist friends suspect him of being a champagne socialist.
Arlen Hird (Louis CK looking more miserable than ever) wants to bring the whole system down, and thinks Trumbo enjoys the riches and rewards of being a successful Hollywood scriptwriter just a little too much. “You talk like a radical, but you live like a rich guy.”
Trumbo is directed by Jay Roach, a director known mostly for comedies, and there are a lot of laughs in Trumbo, apt considering it was an absurd time in history. Unable to work, Trumbo and his cronies wrote under pseudonyms, or used friends as fronts, but Hollywood being a small town filled with gossip, this was something of an open secret, and in interviews Trumbo was often deliberately vague while also heavily implying he was getting work as a writer. He wins the Oscar twice, but cannot acknowledge that he wrote the movies.
The tone is mostly jocular, even in many scenes of confrontation, which somewhat diminishes the film’s serious moments.
As with many films that deal with behind the scenes life in Hollywood, the movie is stocked with actors impersonating famous faces (Helen Mirren curls her lip villainously as Hedda Hopper; David James Elliott menaces as an all-too self-righteous John Wayne; Dean O’Gorman juts his jaw as Kirk Douglas, and so on.)
Some of these portraits work better than others. Edward G. Robinson is played by Michael Stuhlbarg. He doesn’t sound anything like Robinson but he does a decent job of conveying the actor’s air of old-world sensibilities.
John Goodman shines as a small-time producer of cheap shlock who hires Trumbo and his friends to write dreadful pieces of shit. Diane Lane is Trumbo’s wife (has Lane already entered that point in an actress’s career when the only roles she can get are wife or mother?)
Roach’s directorial style is fairly unshowy. A few scenes are shot in black and white, mixing the film’s actors with actual newsreel footage, but the general look of the film is bright and colourful (another Oscar-nominated Cold War piece, Bridge of Spies, is decidely greyer.)
This is Cranston’s show from start to finish, and he’s very good (I’m still a little surprised to see him nominated for an Oscar, though, but I put that down to the Academy’s fondness for movies about movies.)
Verdict: Three and a Half Writing Sessions in the Bath out of Five