Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) are presented as the primary antagonists in this fascinating, yet oddly unmoving, examination of Hollywood’s post-World War II Red Scare. It’s a bold – and perhaps not entirely historically accurate – choice in a film that pulls few punches, particularly when it comes to icons.
Other classic film legends who catch narrative shrapnel: MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), who gives in to Hopper’s red-baiting and retaliatory threats; Universal head of production Edward Muhl (Mark Harelick), who opposes Kirk Douglas’ hiring of Trumbo to pen SPARTACUS (1960) after a failed effort by novelist Howard Fast; director Sam Wood (John Getz), who nearly decks Trumbo after a poolside filibuster; and “Buddy Ross” (Roger Bart), a craven composite of producers Dory Schary and Walter Wanger. Even Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) are depicted as less-than-heroic in their competitive, near-simultaneous decisions to give screen credit to Trumbo (as writer of STARTACUS and EXODUS, respectively) after more than a decade in the pseudonymous shadows.
Faring worst of all is Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stulbarg), who sells out the leftie screenwriters whose leanings he once loyally supported. While Wayne is depicted as a bullying hypocrite for questioning the patriotism of “subversives” while he himself avoided military service, Robinson is branded as weak and cowardly. His verbal takedown by Trumbo is the closest the film has to a true moment of catharsis, and our final view of him – old and alone at a 1970 ceremony honoring the writer – clearly communicates how Roach and screenwriter John McNamara want us to feel about him. (McNamara’s screenplay is adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the same name.)
I should mention that none of the actors playing these icons are particularly up to the task, save for Mirren, who’s likely to score an Oscar nominee for her go-for-broke portrayal of the vile, shrewish Hopper. I was genuinely shocked at how bland Stulbarg and Elliott are as Robinson and Wayne, two of the most charismatic performers from the Studio Era. Only O’Gorman comes close to capturing the preening charm of Douglas. And make sure to watch for the excerpt from SPARTACUS in which O’Gorman is digitally inserted in the action. It’s brilliantly done.
Faring the best of the historical portrayals is John Goodman as schlock producer Frank King of the notorious King Brothers, who kept Trumbo and his blacklisted buddies employed as part of an ingenious screenwriting front that rendered the blacklist impotent. Chomping on a cigar and swinging baseball bats at government lackies, Goodman’s King may be the most uncomplicated and sympathetic character in the film, save for Diane Lane who makes the most of her heroic spouse role. Elle Fanning is also memorable as the daughter who carries on Trumbo’s legacy of political advocacy, and Louis C.K. is fine as a composite, blacklisted screenwriter character, though he pales next to the brilliance of Bryan Cranston and has too much screen time.
I’ve never seen Breaking Bad, so Cranston is somewhat of a revelation to me. And what a revelation he is. From the toast of Hollywood to the indignities of a jail cell, his Trumbo is a complex, mercurial, often unlikeable hero. He’s as much of a self-serving hypocrite as every other Hollywood player portrayed in the film, and he knows it. Cranston in on screen for most of the movie, and there’s not a single false note in his performance.
TRUMBO is not a great film; it sometimes has the discount patina of a made-for-cable period drama. But Cranston, Mirren, Lane, Fanning, and Goodman are close to perfection. If you’re fascinated by both the faults and the triumphs of the classic film era, this is a must see.
TRUMBO is in theaters nationwide. To find out where it’s playing in your area, click here.