I’m a sucker for period detail, especially if the details of the period aren’t filtered through the usual 20/20 hindsight and rose colored glasses that typically sanitize any type of nostalgia for mainstream public consumption. That’s why I found so much to love and hate about Jay Roach’s new film (based on Bruce Alexander Cook’s book) Trumbo, a Hollywood Babylon-esque expose of the 50’s film industry’s Communist witch hunts as glimpsed through the lens of celebrated author and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
De-facto “leader” of a group of socially conscious liberal screenwriters who fancy themselves “Communists” when it was a term as innocent as “Democrat” or “Republican”, Trumbo (the brilliant Bryan Cranston, disappearing into the role), despite his massive success, fame and fortune, finds he and his group under fire when radical Russian Communists become the new faceless boogeyman of the month for America to hate and fear after the Nazi’s defeat in World War II. Trumbo maintains his integrity at the risk of his friends (including a perfectly cast Louis C.K. as an audience surrogate and conscience) and family (the always great Diane Lane plays his wife, Cleo) and faces jail time and the destruction of his career and reputation, but upon his release he works his way back into the business cunningly and calculatingly, proving that his contemporaries should’ve cared more about his work than his politics in the first place.
Just as with The Big Short, here we have a director primarily known for comedies skillfully tackling a dark chapter in American history with the help of an excellent ensemble cast. Standouts include the damn near ageless John Goodman as the B-Movie producer Dalton hooks up with (hilarious shades of Burton’s Ed Wood) after being released, and a star turn from Boardwalk Emprie’s Michael Stuhlbarg portraying Edward G. Robinson, who turned on Trumbo after he was incarcerated even though he had previously donated to the Communist cause. The scene where a newly free Cranston confronts Stuhlbarg is one of the film’s most powerful, not just due to the implications of the plot but the real world ramifications of the subject at hand. What would, or could any of us possibly do when faced with such persecution and potential personal and professional ruin? It isn’t an easy question to answer.
Trumbo may be a tad self-congratulatory and long in the tooth, as these docu-dramas tend to be, but it’s still worth a look for those interested the ugliness bubbling under the surface of 50’s Hollywood’s glossy exterior, or just looking for a good underdog story with an (eventual) happy ending.
Trumbo is now playing in limited release and opens everywhere on Thanksgiving.