TrumboLeave it to Hollywood to turn one of its darkest periods of cowardice into a self-aggrandizing cinematic triumph. Celebrating the life of Dalton Trumbo in a major movie from Tinseltown is irony itself; the question is whether the aftertaste is sweet or bitter? Coming off the keys of Trumbo’s typewriter, which he sat behind for hours at a time in his bathtub, beating out some of the most famous screenplays in history, the script of his own life would undoubtedly have been both sweet and sour, awash in fine wine, and surrounded by bilious clouds of cigarette smoke from his six-packs-a-day habit.

Trumbo gives us this Trumbo – a larger than life character in a story that is almost too good to be true. The short version is that Dalton Trumbo was a prolific and outstanding novelist and screenwriter, who, like many of his peers in the 1930’s and 1940’s, was also a member of the Communist Party of America. What started as a political affiliation that showed liberal sensibilities and a tilt toward organized labor became a question of patriotism and allegiance during the height of the Cold War in the 1950’s. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, the group of film professionals who were convicted of contempt and jailed for their refusal to answer questions when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and subsequently blacklisted from any future employment in the film industry.

There turned out to be one minor problem with the blacklist and that was the talent of the individuals who were banned. As Trumbo shows with considerable pleasure, genius is the best answer to small mindedness. Using “fronts,” real or imaginary people who falsely received the credit, Trumbo and his peers continued to churn out scripts, many for B movies and exploitation flicks, some for major studio productions. Two of Trumbo’s screenplays – for The Brave One and Roman Holiday – won Oscars.

In its own right, Trumbo is a fine film that wisely mines the material its subject left behind. Some truths are obscured; some credit to others is withheld. In general, however, the movie faithfully follows the historical record. That means we see contemporary actors portraying film legends including the heroes (Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger), the heels (John Wayne and Hedda Hopper), and the all-too human (Edward G. Robinson). The effectiveness of the celebrity stand-in performances vary. None are simple impersonations, but trademark points of identification are oddly discarded in some cases. Edward G. Robinson and John Wayne boasted two of the most distinct speaking voices ever heard in a cinema, yet neither Michael Stuhlbarg or David James Elliott come close to invoking the distinct cadences and accents of these two legends.

Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, the notorious gossip columnist, is another matter. Mirren is pure poison and loving every minute of it as the force behind the blacklist. The supporting cast boasts other stellar performers including Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife, Cleo, and John Goodman in a forcefully entertaining turn as schlock movie producer Frank King. Yet, the center of the movie rests with one performer and that is Bryan Cranston. Cranston shows there is life after Walter White’s death as he immerses himself completely in the role, clearly relishing the opportunity to give voice to a man that supplied so many famous film lines. Aiding and abetting him are the director, Jay Roach, who turns in arguably his finest work, and screenwriter John McNamara, whose script relies more on humor than self-righteousness.

So, is a movie about a man who wan two Oscars in itself an Oscar contender? Well, duh, we are still looking at a Hollywood that loves nothing more than to look at itself. Nominations for Cranston as Best Actor and Mirren for Best Supporting Actress seem near certainties. Roach and McNamara competing in their respective categories are strong possibilities as well. Any acceptance speech offered at the Academy Awards is unlikely to match the remarks Trumbo gave upon receiving a lifetime achievement award in 1970. The film captures this moment and takes some artistic liberty in including as an introduction what was actually a eulogy delivered in 1976 by another blacklisted screenwriter from the Hollywood Ten, Ring Lardner, Jr.:

“At rare intervals, there appears among us a person whose virtues are so manifest to all, who has such a capacity for relating to every sort of human being, who so subordinates his own ego drive to the concerns of others, who lives his whole life in such harmony with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact. Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not.”

With material like that at the ready, it’s hard not to make an entertaining film.

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