Well here is a movie that I don’t have to worry about spoilers for at all. “Trumbo” is a biopic that follows a well known chronology concerning events that occurred about sixty years ago. Film fans will be familiar with the lead character, they know the end of the story and the villains for the most part are identified early on. Hedda Hopper would be the main figure of evil in this piece but there is plenty of vitriol to be spread around, and most of Hollywood gets some on them. The script plays it as if Trumbo were a saint with magical powers and a short sighted ego that crushes his family as much as the events that take place do. As with all stories, the history is more convoluted than the film is and we will not in that direction here. Instead we will focus on the film and it’s many fine qualities and few weaknesses.
The greatest asset the film has is it’s star, Bryan Cranston. In the last few years he has moved from being the excellent but often overlooked comic performer in “Malcolm in the Middle” to a celebrated TV performer, who impressed for multiple seasons of “Breaking Bad” and enjoyed the endorsement of many in the industry for his fine work there. He has worked effectively in an ensemble including the award winning “Argo”, but he has not yet shined as a movie star, that is no longer the truth, he fills the screen with talent in this movie. His line delivery is distinctive and works well with many of the grandiose passages of dialogue that have been written for him. Even when he is in simple conversation he sounds as if it could be a speech he is delivering to an audience. That fits the character quite well. His sly smile, furrowed brow and mannerisms with a cigarette holder all feel genuine for the outlandish egocentric that Dalton apparently was.
The supporting cast is also excellent, ranging from Elle Fanning as the apple that does not fall far from the tree to John Goodman as the crass studio head that exploits the blacklisted writers but also respects their work. The film is a who’s who of Hollywood talent. Diane Lane is effective as Trumbo’s wife Cleo and she gets a juicy scene with Cranston when they fight over his behavior. Helen Mirren is Great Britain’s answer to Meryl Streep, always cast well and always excellent in her scenes. With the exception of Dean O’ Gorman as Kirk Douglas, most of the actors portraying famous performers from the period have little resemblance to their real life counterparts. Some nice digital work inserts O’Gorman’s face into a scene from “Spartacus” and that did enhance the believably of that sequence. While John Wayne would probably be considered on the wrong side of the issue, the screenplay makes him a fairly sympathetic adversary, at least one who has a true sense of morality concern the human beings involved. Trumbo is shown to have flaws (although they are largely skimmed over) when he uses Wayne’s military status during the war as an attack point and then self righteously suggests that he be allowed to remove his glasses before being punched by a man whom he has just invited to do so. It was one of a few ugly moments that Trumbo as a character is allowed to have.
Not faring quite as well is Edward G. Robinson, a supporter of the Hollywood Ten until his career is mangled by the blacklist. Another opportunity to show Trumbo’s vindictive side occurs when he confronts Robinson, who ultimately testified as a friendly witness, and Trumbo dismisses Robinson’s justification for his actions, despite the fact that he gave many of the same justifications earlier to fellow refusenik Arlin Hird ( a very solid Louie C.K.), an apparently fictional character that espouses some of the true philosophies of the Communist Party of the United States. Whether the confrontation took place or not, it must surely have been endemic of Hollywood at the time since there were so many people effected in some way by the blacklist.
I am usually suspicious of a movie that works in a speech to an audience as a story telling device, it seems a lazy way to sneak in narrative with an emotional content, but the speech given at the end to the Writer’s Guild appears to have been genuine and it is suggested that it went a long way to healing the wounds of the blacklist. That makes it all the more odd that after finishing with an effective dramatic moment, the film turns polemic with a series of screen scrolls that start the argument all over again. The sour tone is probably designed to make the political message more important, but it feels like the screenwriter simply felt like the drama had failed to do so and therefore a post script was required. I thought it undercut what was to that point a human drama that showed the turmoil of the times and the confusion of the figures involved. That’s too bad because for the most part, what came before really was compelling.