Hollywood has found it difficult to dramatize the Blacklist, likely because Tinseltown was its highestprofile proponent during that post-World War II period. Although many Americans were persecuted and prosecuted, there’s a reason that it’s commonly referred to as “the Hollywood Blacklist” – and, unlike the movies of yesteryear, no cavalry came to the rescue.
Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach and based on Bruce Cook’s biography Dalton Trumbo, is a well-intentioned and wellacted dramatization of the life of Dalton Trumbo (1905-’76), one of the top screenwriters of his time (perhaps all time), and certainly among the most notable survivors of the Blacklist era.
Despite the film’s obvious sincerity, screenwriter John McNamara (also a producer, and making his feature debut after years in television) tends toward simplifying the complexities of the issue, striving in some cases to find a happy – or at least upbeat – ending, which does smack of vintage Hollywood. In the end, of course, this is a piece of entertainment.
Nevertheless, Trumbo is engaging even when it struggles to educate the viewer, and offers further testament – as if it were needed – to the versatility of leading man Bryan Cranston, who inhabits Trumbo from the inside out. Much as he did with his acclaimed role as Walter Wood on “Breaking Bad” and his Tony Award-winning role as LBJ in All the Way, Cranston offers a carefully, near-perfectly, modulated performance. He looks like Dalton Trumbo. He sounds like Dalton Trumbo. He’s got Trumbo’s mannerisms. All by himself, he makes the film worth seeing.
Diane Lane (as Cleo Trumbo), Michael Stuhlbarg (as fellow Blacklist victim Edward G. Robinson), Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Alan Tudyk, Stephen Root, Roger Bart and Adewale Akinnuoye- Agbaje offer solid support. Helen Mirren sashays through the narrative in Dragon Lady fashion as Red-baiting columnist Hedda Hopper, essentially the human (or inhuman) embodiment of the Hollywood Blacklist, but she couldn’t give a bad performance if she tried. Nostalgia buffs may enjoy seeing such legends portrayed as Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), Christian Berkel (very funny as Otto Preminger), and John Wayne (David James Elliott), who runs a close second to Hopper in the Red-baiting sweepstakes.
Trumbo might have felt more at home as an HBO film, or perhaps as a cable mini-series. With so much ground to cover, some events are compressed or omitted altogether. It is, however, a laudable attempt to lay bare one of the darkest episodes in Hollywood, and in American, history. !