From goofy dad Hal to everyone’s favourite small screen meth messiah Walter White, Bryan Cranston has exercised his versatility as an actor in many ways over the years. Now he’s playing the ultimate American film industry hero in Trumbo, sporting spectacles and smoking cigarettes as the controversial yet prolific screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
Starting in 1947 during the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, Trumbo’s skyrocketing career is sent into a dramatic and very public tailspin when he and others in the entertainment biz are blacklisted by the government for their communist political beliefs. Stubborn and hellbent on unequivocal freedom, Trumbo takes his eventual one-year prison sentence on the chin. Upon his release however, Hollywood refuses to employ him so he takes matters – and his career – into his own hands.
Writing under various pseudonyms for on-the-down-low profits, Trumbo slowly chipped away at the decade-long oppression of free speech by submitting masterpieces anonymously and getting friends (even invented ones) to take the credit. Although in exile, Trumbo’s creative spark was at its most productive, and it was during this tumultuous period that he won – albeit under aliases – two Academy Awards with Roman Holiday and The Brave One, and the subsequent twin releases of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Austrian director Otto Preminger’s Exodus finally lifted the ban on his work.
With Trumbo, director Jay Roach (Meet the Fockers, The Campaign) has crafted a mostly light-hearted biopic that paints the portrait of one of the most emblematic entertainment figures of the 20th century. Casting Cranston was sublime, as he is able to switch between intellectual brevity and ridiculous levity in one scene. Although the laughs can literally be the laugh-out-loud kind and they happen consistently, there’s a depth and seriousness to the storytelling with Roach never quite shying away from showing the consequences of Trumbo’ actions on his family and friends. Having his fingers in so many secret pies took its toll on his once blissful family life, as Trumbo’s self-satisfying drive to succeed and work overpowered his otherwise primarily empathetic and jocular nature.
Supporting cast wise, Roach has collated a great bunch of mostly well-known actors. There’s gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (a stylish but steely turn from Helen Mirren), actors John Wayne (played by a gruff and buff David James Elliot) and Kirk Douglas (a pretty impressive chin transformation by Kiwi actor Dean O’Gorman) and a thick-tongued Christian Berkel as the aforementioned Otto Preminger. John Goodman is predictable but enjoyable as big-mouthed, but big-hearted B-grade director Frank King (and alongside Cranston, it can resemble an Argo reunion at times), whilst comedian Louis C. K manages to tug at the heart strings between gags as talented but ill writer Arlen Hird, and Diane Lane and Elle Fanning round out the ensemble as the heart of the Trumbo family.
The glitz and glamour of the era is visually tantalising only really in the first half of the film, with lavish pool parties, champagne and mingling on the top of everyone that’s important’s priority list. Trumbo too had become accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and it’s admittedly only with a spell in prison that he began to appreciate that there was more to life than fame and material assets. Fellow writer Arlen hits the nail on the head when he says “ever since I’ve known you, you talk like a radical, but you live like a rich guy. I don’t think you’re willing to lose all of this just to do the right thing.” He later learns, however, that he may have underestimated Trumbo.
Although the subject is about oppression, this film is an expression about staying true to your beliefs and doing what makes you happy. Cliché? Yes. But true? Most definitely. Seesawing between history and humour, Trumbo is ultimately a warm and fuzzy look at the once dark and suspicious side of the entertainment history, but more importantly, how those targeted by its regime carried on regardless.
Trumbo is out this Thursday.