Bryan Cranston is obviously best known for his sterling work as chemistry teacher/ruthless drug kingpin Walter White in Breaking Bad. Even in the setting of ‘50s Hollywood, he can’t seem to escape this legacy. After he, as prolific screenwriter/former Communist Dalton Trumbo, is blacklisted, he’s forced to churn out schlocky scripts under a series of pseudonyms and get them to studios in ridiculously short spaces of time, often under the cover of night. This family business – Trumbo’s wife and three children all play key roles – is highly reminiscent of any number of drug deals we’ve seen go down on screen, and the zippy pacing and editing make these sequences feel closer to recent gangster dramas than your typical biopic. It’s just one of many examples of a smooth blend of ‘50s and modern sensibilities that keep Trumbo both relevant and unfashionably (in the best possible sense) fun.
Telling a serious tale but only taking itself half-seriously, Trumbo focuses on the man behind the Oscar-winning screenplays for films like Roman Holiday and The Brave One, but couldn’t be recognised for his achievements thanks to an ideologically oppressive regime. McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee make up a dark chapter of US history, but Trumbo never sinks into obvious worthiness. Writer John McNamara recognises the absurdity of the period, and wrings plenty of genuine laughs out of a situation that most other films would play for sombre drama. He’s helped immensely here by the comic instincts of director Jay Roach (best known for the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents franchises) and an exceptional supporting cast.
If one were to write up a list of the most underutilised but always excellent character actors working today, there’d be plenty of correlation with the cast of Trumbo. Alan Tudyk (playing writer Ian McLellan Hunter) and Michael Stuhlbarg (as actor Edward G Robinson) are particularly good, Tudyk bringing with him an exceptional sense of comedic timing, and that-guy-from-that-TV-show staples Stephen Root and Dan Bakkedahl are allowed their moments to shine as well. Louis CK basically plays a ‘50s version of himself as Trumbo’s fellow blacklist victim Arlen Hird, always grounding the film (and Trumbo himself) if things get too self-important or unnecessarily poetic. This works well, and the other two major supporting roles offer a similarly untaxing challenge to their veteran actors. Helen Mirren could pull off Hedda Hopper, all cruel barbs and fancy hats, in her sleep, and if sleazy but honourable studio head Frank King had been played by anyone other than John Goodman, some sort of cinematic law surely would have been broken.
Cranston is superb in the title role, and he looks like he’s having a ball playing the highly intelligent and flamboyant writer. From the very first time we meet him, Dalton Trumbo is a Writer with a capital W. He smokes long cigarettes and writes in the bath accompanied by a series of whiskeys. Cranston avoids caricature, but allows himself an increasingly eccentric streak as the film goes on – by the time he’s writing Spartacus, Trumbo owns two birds and lets director Otto Preminger, a stern German with lines like ‘Christmas is over’, into his living room to meet his family.
Trumbo’s family is less well-served, with much of the energy and wit leaving the film whenever he interacts with his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), or his eldest daughter, Nicola (Elle Fanning). It’s a shame, as it means the representation of the women in the film feels iffy, and it wastes the considerable talents of Diane Lane. The villains also get a short shrift, the ‘patriotic’ right-wingers reduced to the idiot Republicans that wouldn’t feel too out of place on The Simpsons. Luckily, scenes involving the HUAC are very funny, and ridiculing the hysterical censors is the right kind of retroactive revenge.
Commenting on the moral problems posed by ideological censoring is what makes Trumbo’s story feel properly relevant to today, as what does and does not constitute ‘free speech’ is one of the hottest-button topics in modern discourse. But Roach and McNamara avoid the temptation to get too preachy, and never let the Important Message get in the way of being consistently entertaining. Trumbo is never boring, and feels a lot like the most enjoyable films of the era in which it’s set. It takes what could be mundane or gruelling (Dalton’s prison stay is knowingly light-hearted instead of being grim) and, with a gifted cast and really great editing, instead makes what will most likely be the most fun biopic of 2015
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara
Starring; Bryan Cranston, Louis CK, Helen Mirren
Runtime: 124 mins
Trumbo is released in the UK on 5 February 2016