The “Red Scare” of the late 1940s and 50s, when screenwriters, producers, actors and directors were blacklisted for sympathies to the Communist Party, remains a prickly but important subject for Hollywood.
As such, the makers of this biopic of outspokenly unrepentant writer Dalton Trumbo should be applauded for even getting it financed. It is, after all, the partial life story of a communist who refused to recant his socialist beliefs to avoid prison.
Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston brings stature and eccentricity (and award nominations) to the title role, and director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) clearly relishes re-creating the postwar Tinseltown milieu and scenes from movies of the period (including Spartacus), cleverly merging newsreel of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings into the drama.
But Trumbo doesn’t stray far enough from spot-the-famous-person and comic melodrama to get to any deeper understanding of the human fallout of this shameful and divisive chapter in Hollywood history.
Though Trumbo’s supportive family are well played – especially Elle Fanning as the activist eldest daughter who wishes her workaholic dad had time to attend her birthday party – their antagonism is largely sketched in via shouting at Dad through doors when he’s glued to his typewriter.
There is much to enjoy here for buffs of the period, as long as you can stomach Otto Preminger being played exclusively for laughs by Christian Berkel. Although Roach has proved his dramatic chops with HBO political dramas Recount and Game Change, the temptation to play Trumbo for laughs is its defining problem, such as when Kirk Douglas (well played by Dean O’Gorman) actually says, “I am Spartacus!” At times like this, John McNamara’s script tends to oversimplify the complex material, leaving characters to spout rhetoric. It’s only when Trumbo is humiliatingly strip-searched by a prison guard that we get a rare glimpse of the fallible man behind the bolshy “swimming-pool Soviet” (as he is affectionately called at a party).
Red-bashing, anti-Semitic columnist Hedda Hopper is little more than a pantomime villain, and Helen Mirren can do no more than elicit audience hisses in the role. Likewise a huge, threatening John Wayne (David James Elliot). Kirk Douglas, meanwhile, is idealised as democracy’s saviour, breaking the blacklist by crediting Trumbo for Spartacus. Michael Stuhlbarg brings greater depth to a stoic Edward G Robinson, and John Goodman provides a dose of uncouth energy as B-movie producer Frank King. But all this karaoke detracts from the heart of the matter: the injustice meted out to individuals by a politically cowed film industry in a failed test for the First Amendment. (Fans of comic Louis CK will wish he was a more confident actor playing someone other than himself, too.)
Director Martin Ritt, writer Walter Bernstein and star Woody Allen eked comedy and tragedy from the same subject in 1976’s The Front , but it made no grand biographical claims and felt more focused as a result. George Clooney mortgaged his house to make the earnest Good Night, and Good Luck, which highlighted journalistic integrity. The scenes at the HUAC show trials are among Trumbo’s most successful, with Cranston in particular giving the committee what for. Convicted of contempt of Congress, he later said that the verdict was just: “I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since.”
With such intense raw material, you don’t need to make it up.
Trumbo is released in cinemas on Friday 5 February