**** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Jay Roach
STARS Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane
Bryan Cranston as Trumbo (Photo: Bleecker Street)
The best movies are often the ones that educate as well as entertain, and with the magnificent Trumbo, we have a film that succeeds on both fronts. And the most important movies are often the ones that, regardless of setting or time frame, manage to lend a voice to today's issues, and in that regard, the picture again passes with high marks. In a 21st century largely defined by the manner in which right-wing politicians in this nation have successfully used fear and bullying in their strategy to divide and conquer, this look at the Hollywood blacklist during the days of the Red Menace hysteria seems especially timely ... and pointedly frightening.
Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston is superb as Dalton Trumbo, the brilliant screenwriter whose work on such hits as Kitty Foyle and A Guy Named Joe makes him one of the film capital's most successful wordsmiths. But Trumbo is an acknowledged Communist, and once World War II ends and the Cold War begins in earnest, Trumbo and those like him are soon targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. What follows is a national disgrace, as any entertainer with leftist sentiments, even Democrats like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), are thrown to the zealous politicians. Some are jailed, others crack and willingly give names, and almost all find their careers derailed. But Trumbo fights to survive, writing scripts and placing others' names on them — this necessary deception ends up winning him two Academy Awards (for Roman Holiday and The Brave One), neither of which he can claim.
Such an abbreviated synopsis provides but a mere peek at everything going on within the confines of this simultaneously weighty and breezy picture, which looks at his home life (Diane Lane plays his wife while Elle Fanning portrays his oldest child) almost as much as his professional one. Trumbo isn't portrayed as a saint: His workaholic tendencies alienate him from his family, and, like most people who subscribe to any one ideology, he can be somewhat of a hypocrite (as a friend notes, he's a share-the-wealth Commie whose private property includes a lake). But there's never any doubt that he was needlessly persecuted, and while the real-life Trumbo eventually stated that there were no heroes or villains during this era of the blacklist, that's not exactly true. Folks like actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger (respectively, and winningly, played by Dean O'Gorman and Christian Berkel), men who bravely helped break the blacklist, could be counted among the heroes, while columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), politicians Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon (both seen in vintage footage) and, to a lesser degree, even actor John Wayne (a fine David James Elliott) could be numbered among the villains.
Astutely written by John McNamara (from Bruce Cook's book Dalton Trumbo) and zestfully directed by Jay Roach (the Emmy-winning helmer behind the HBO political flicks Game Change and Recount), Trumbo is alternately poignant, amusing (John Goodman provides most of the nyuks as garrulous B-movie producer Frank King), infuriating and always thought-provoking. It's also a potent wake-up call for anyone not too lethargic to heed its alarm.