Bryan Cranston is already being touted as an Oscar contender for Trumbo, a biopic of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, yet the man he plays had to watch on his living room TV set as screenplays he’d written but sold through front men—Roman Holiday in 1953, The Brave One in 1956—were honored at the Academy Awards. Trumbo was one of the industry’s most successful screenwriters when he joined the Communist Party in 1943; called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he refused to answer questions about his political associations and was charged with contempt of Congress, along with the rest of the “Hollywood Ten.” After serving 11 months in federal prison, he spent the 1950s cranking out anonymous screenplays; one of his most durable partnerships was with the poverty-row studio King Brothers Productions (an outfit played for laughs in the movie, with John Goodman as a cigar-chomping hustler). Not until 1960, when producer-star Kirk Douglas gave Trumbo an onscreen credit for Spartacus, did the writer work under his own name again.
Director Jay Roach is best known for broad comedies like Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers movies, and there’s a cartoonish quality to Trumbo, which boils down the Hollywood film community of the postwar era to a handful of familiar players: Douglas, John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson, Louis B. Mayer, Hedda Hopper, Otto Preminger. But as Cranston has pointed out, Trumbo was a pretty broad character himself, given to grand pronouncements and lacerating witticisms. As portrayed in Trumbo, he bides his time, certain that history will vindicate him. Thinking perhaps of Martin Ritt’s comedy The Front (1976), with Woody Allen, Roach plays up the more absurd aspects of the situation—a particularly funny sequence has Trumbo playing Preminger and Douglas against each other to see who will credit him first and get bragging rights for ending the blacklist.
These scenes are also counterbalanced with more private ones involving Trumbo’s wife, Cleo (Diane Lane, excellent), and eldest daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning), that show the true emotional toll on the family. A fair amount of Trumbo transpires in their home, where the writer sits in his bathtub day and night, drinking and banging out one screenplay after another on his manual typewriter. The neighbors shun them, and the children have to deal with their father being pilloried by classmates. Trumbo’s predicament becomes their predicament, and resentment builds despite their best efforts to help each other. Slowly but surely Trumbo is ground down by the experience, no matter how upbeat and determined his public statements may be. “This worthless statue has the blood of my friends all over it,” Trumbo declares when someone tries to give him one of the Academy Awards he earned. There’s one you’ll never hear on Oscar night. v