Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) is celebrated for his work, but barely tolerated for his vocal communism. Then, when the Red Scare goes into full effect, he and his fellow leftist writers are punished and exiled for their views.
Given he's the director behind the Austin Powers and Meet The Parents movies, Jay Roach isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to find hefting such weighty historical material as the investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) into the supposed communist ‘threat’ from Hollywood during the late ’40s and ’50s. Yet while he lacks the flair to elevate Trumbo visually or structurally — it is broad and flat and straightforwardly chronological — he allows a lightness of touch that, for all the ruined lives on display, feels appropriate to a narrative set entirely within the entertainment industry.
When you witness Dalton dressing down an intimidating John Wayne, it's a true, punch-the-air moment.
Roach might not have got away with it if he hadn’t landed himself the best possible leading man in the form of Bryan Cranston. Having impressed from the sidelines in that other Hollywood-based historical drama Argo, here he moves to the centre and owns the show completely, even if it is already stuffed with eye-catching performances.
Michael Stuhlbarg may preen perfectly as compromised star Edward G. Robinson, John Goodman may dextrously balance aggression and bonhomie as larger-than-life B-pic baron Frank King, and Helen Mirren may snap you upright in your seat as impassioned commie-hater Hedda Hopper (she doesn’t so much chew the scenery as wither it with her glare), but Cranston is Dalton Trumbo. With his face pulled into an almost permanently wry smile, his posture hunched as if forever sat at an invisible typewriter, his voice remodulated into a dry, crisp burr, ideal for dropping well-aimed bon mots and put-downs into any conversation or confrontation, Cranston possesses the part like, well, a man possessed. That includes Trumbo’s flaws. As he gulps down bennies and turns his household into an illicit, script-producing sweatshop, this “swimming-pool Soviet” has become a domestic dictator. Hypocrisy is a luxury he can afford, while his ideals are more than matched by his ego.
How accurate this portrayal is to the real blacklisted writer is irrelevant. This is about embodying and exemplifying the spirit of a man whose life was pulled apart just as he’d reached the peak of his career, and who then fought back with a tenacity that’s nothing short of admirable, whatever you think of his politics. So when you witness Cranston-as-Dalton dressing down a strident and intimidating John Wayne (David James Elliott), it is a true, punch-the-air moment. He makes it hard to imagine anyone else duking it out with The Duke and strolling away with their face intact.
It feels terrestrial rather than cinematic, but the joy of Trumbo is in the heroism of its subject and an amazing performance from Cranston.