Own It, Hollywood!

(USA, 124 min.)
Dir. Jay Roach, Writ. John McNamara
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, David James Elliott, Dean O'Gorman, Alan Tudyk, Louis C.K
Helen Mirren stars as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo in Jay Roach’s Trumbo, an Entertainment One release. Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” are chilling words that define a dark and pivotal chapter of Hollywood history. The years of the Hollywood Blacklist in which industry figures like screenwriter Dalton Trumbo were ostracized and persecuted for their politics, are important years for Hollywood to remember, yet the story of the Hollywood Ten doesn’t get much screen time from Tinsletown. Aside from George Clooney’s excellent Good Night, and Good Luck, which uses the 1953 CBS news coverage of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to interrogate media responsibility in Bush-era America, few contemporary films ask that familiar question. It appears again in Trumbo, perhaps the fullest dramatization of the era of the Hollywood Blacklist, but the film unfortunately feels like a missed opportunity to turn the question of McCarthyism right on its head.

Trumbo gives a dark story light treatment in an admirably disappointing movie about the movies. The film is in the vein of 2012’s Hitchcock with its conflictingly tempered rendering of Trumbo’s fall and return from the shadows. Unfortunately, for Trumbo, the film features a scene in which Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) jokes about directing Trumbo’s script inconsistently to balance the quality of the writing, for Trumbo feels similarly inconsistent as director Jay Roach (Game Change) flip-flips between silliness and satire. Hollywood writes a good story, but, oddly enough, it sometimes struggles in telling its own story.

Bryan Cranston stars as the famed screenwriter and member of the Communist Party, and his performance as the titular writer is consistently solid despite the inconsistencies in the film itself. Cranston’s hunched and raspy performance carries a writer’s passion and eccentricities. Mr. Trumbo certainly affords a meaty role as he waves his cigarette holder and speaks in grandiose writerly proclamations that allow an actor to accent word with majestic gestures and conviction. Both Mr. Trumbo and Mr. Cranston have an inherent flare for storytelling, and Cranston’s performance sparks the passion of the creative process with the right fire and intelligence. Cranston’s Trumbo fights for something greater than himself as he clacks away on the keyboard and wrinkles like a prune in the bathtub, which doubles as his office. As with Walter White and Heisenberg in Breaking Bad, Cranston relishes the opportunity to play a man who lives a double life and finds success with alter egos.

While Mr. White makes drugs and kills people, Mr. Trumbo writes movies and entertains; however, they both pursue a common ideal that says America is a great country with a flawed system that one must simply subvert to play fair. Trumbo, following his interrogation before HUAC, subsequent blacklisting from the Hollywood studios, and year in prison for contempt of congress, basically starts breaking bad Hollywood style by writing screenplays on the sly with a nom de plume. The trick works wonders—some of his films are smashes without his name in the credits and they accumulate box office mojo with two of them, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, earning Oscars for the writers fronting Trumbo. Trumbo’s success proves that a man’s politics and his work can be separate entities and, subsequently, his coup shows the redundancy of the hearings, the Blacklist, and the anti-Communist fears running throughout America if Americans can love Roman Holiday without being corrupted by leftist leanings.

Trumbo, however, tells this dark story a little too lightly as it offers chuckles and zingers—the latter of which are to be expected given the writerly subject. The film never treads into full-on comedy, though, and instead the humour becomes a protective shield against pushing the envelope too far. Awkward pacing makes the drama fizzle, for Trumbo encounters few obstacles that aren’t easily overcome in the film’s lengthy running time. Aside from some moments in which a villainous Hedda Hopper (a delicious Helen Mirren, who sports a riotous assemblage of over-the-top hats on the gossip columnist’s head) pokes her nose into Communist rumblings, the film finds little conflict in this difficult tale. There is merit in revisiting the years of the Hollywood Blacklist, but why Trumbo decides to tell this story right now isn’t clear. (Unlike, say, Good Night, and Good Luck coming on the heels of Rathergate to remind CBS of the ideals its newsroom it once cherished.)

Cranston nevertheless gives a memorable performance that shows the range and spark of ability to blend dark humour and gravelly conviction. The actor is especially fun in his few scenes with Mirren that assume a conspiratorial rivalry as both actors indelibly embody the idealism that their respective characters represent. Many other key supporting players add ample colour bringing to life familiar faces from classic Hollywood, like Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, David James Elliot as John Wayne, and Dean O’Gorman as an uncannily spot-on Kirk Douglas, while John Goodman brings some Argo spirit as a producer of Hollywood schlock. This movie about the movies tips its hat to a hero who helped define an era for better while his peers could have defined it for the worse. It’s an important story and one that Hollywood should own more forcefully.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Trumbo is now playing in limited release. It screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne and Landmark Kanata.