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"When you look back with curiosity on that dark time," screenwriter Dalton Trumbo said of the Hollywood blacklist, of which he was perhaps the most prominent member, "it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims." The dramatized Trumbo punctuates this film with this speech, as if to drive home a message, but that message doesn't seem to have entirely taken with the filmmakers. The members of the House Un-American Activities Committee and their sympathizers are unambiguously cast as villains and devils here. Fair enough. But once we know we're on that orthodox turf, the subject matter hardly seems ripe for an especially inquisitive or challenging work. Thankfully, though, "Trumbo" stops short of becoming an overwrought, didactic period piece. For that, we largely have Bryan Cranston to thank.
Cranston plays the title character, whose membership in the Communist party and refusal to cow to congressional inquiry earned him a federal prison sentence and pariah status in Hollywood. A particularly malign industry columnist (Helen Mirren) snaps her fingers and Trumbo's highly remunerative gig at a major studio is gone. Trumbo is forced to take whatever work he can to make ends meet. Mainly he writes — and writes, and writes — B pictures like "The Alien and the Farm Girl," whose plot is propelled by a "giant bug head shtupping a girl in a hayloft," as his new boss (John Goodman) explains the treatment. Trumbo deals with this situation by enlisting his family into the business of delivering scripts and answering phones, all while holing himself up in the bathtub to churn out more pulp. This routine takes a toll, and Trumbo morphs into a dictator, barking commands to his family and ordering around the less-talented (but also blacklisted) filmmakers he's enlisted in his screenplay assembly line. (Louis C.K. plays one of them, in a performance that falls somewhat flat; his principled Communism causes him to invest his own depictions of alien sex and the like with proletarian overtones).
For a minute I thought there might be some larger commentary in Trumbo's decline. Perhaps his transition to tyranny is an indictment of pure ideological commitment and the havoc it wreaks on private lives and personal relationships. But that reading is implausible, for one thing because this is just not that kind of movie, and also because the film provides no real context for Trumbo's views on Communism. We get very little feel for who Trumbo was as an artist — we hear a few snatches of his written dialog, but that's about it — or as a political thinker (if indeed he was that). There are many scenes of Trumbo pecking away at his keyboard with determination, but little indication of what's coming out of it. Anyway, things lighten when Trumbo begins to emerge from the blacklist. The director (Jay Roach, best know for the "Austin Powers" and "Fockers" franchises) is free to return to silly depictions of old Hollywood stars such as John Wayne (shown as a villainous red-baiter) and Kirk Douglas (here a heroic supporter of Trumbo's "Spartacus" screenplay).
These portrayals and various other insidery elements, not to mention the film's positive tone and politically correct approach, make it seem like "Trumbo" is gunning for an Oscar. I wouldn't be surprised if it got a nod in the lead-actor category. Cranston's performance is truly striking and makes this movie worth seeing. He plays Trumbo with great range, imbuing him with both subtle humor and unsubtle rage. (He has good dialogue to work with, too.)
Ultimately, this is a one-man show. The heavy screen time is a good thing, because Cranston's acting is what elevates this movie from mediocre to good. Deep down, "Trumbo" wants to be a run-of-the-mill historical drama. The use of fake news footage is hokey. References to important events of the era tend to lack real depth. Formally, there's not much interesting going on here. When the film departs from its broader pretensions and focuses on the struggles of its main character, though, it becomes something more compelling.