One of the season’s best indies is Trumbo, a biopic from the ’50s Red Scare era.
Trumbo (Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, John Goodman) – Bryan Cranston is an actor’s actor. He has been working steadily in Hollywood since the ‘80s but didn’t become a household name until TV’s Malcolm In the Middle and the epic Breaking Bad. His movie roles have been limited to supporting turns in films like Argo, Total Recall, John Carter, Red Tails, and Larry Crowne.
In Trumbo, he moves to the top of the marquee playing famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who won two Oscars and was nominated for one more in his largely anonymous career. Why anonymous? As the movie portrays, Trumbo joined the Communist party in the wake of fascism and paid for it the rest of his life. Trumbo was a true believer and activist in liberal causes but was miles away from any connection to Moscow. But in the post WWII era and in the face of Soviet aggression during the Cold War, Trumbo found himself exposed/outed by the House Un-American Activities Committee as were many of Hollywood’s notables.
The Red Menace led to the Hollywood blacklist, which put numerous artists out of work. Trumbo and several of his fellow writers turned to writing scripts for minor studios like King Brothers Productions (John Goodman and Stephen Root play the brothers) and were never credited, working under pseudonyms. Trumbo wrote the script for Roman Holiday under his friend’s name, Ian McLellan Hunter; it won the Oscar in 1954. And he also wrote The Brave One, which won in 1956, under the name of Robert Rich.
Trumbo’s road to redemption was rough. His friend, Edward G. Robinson (played by the extraordinary Michael Stuhlbarg), turned on him before the House committee in order to save his own career. Powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren in a resplendent performance), who comes off as a mean, anti-communist anti-semite, uses her forum to 34 million readers to smear Trumbo and others. John Wayne, Hollywood’s most visible “patriot,” uses his all-American image to attack the liberals. So do Robert Taylor and Ronald Reagan among others.
Trumbo becomes obsessed with righting the wrong, leading a gaggle of other blacklisters in writing B-movie scripts to pay the bills. In the process, he pushes himself and his family to the limit, almost alienating his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), and his kids.
Cranston portrays Trumbo as quirky, eccentric, committed, and prolific. It is a rich, convincing performance without being cloying or preachy. Cranston’s Trumbo never appears to be a Communist zealot, just a believer in liberal causes. This independent biopic is earnest, well acted, and well written. It will be heard from at award time, having already garnered Golden Globe nominations for Cranston and Mirren.