The film covers nearly three decades in the life of American screenwriter and noted Communist Dalton Trumbo (the 1940s-70s), with the title character played impeccably by Bryan Cranston. But three decades of such a richly lived life is a bigger bite than most 2-hour movies can chew. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, artists (mostly writers) connected with the Communist Party in 1947 refused to betray other comrades during the hearings of the Committee on Un-American Activities led by Senator Joseph McCarthy so they had to purge several months in prison and were prevented from working in the industry. Trumbo’s friend Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), who supports the cause, sells the Portrait of Père Tanguy to raise money for their legal defense fund. The unexpected death of Justice Wiley Rutledge ruins Trumbo’s plan to appeal to the Supreme Court. In 1950, Trumbo serves 11 months in Texarkana prison, where he meets former HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas, who was convicted of tax evasion.
An old-school Hollywood screenwriter who did a fair amount of his best work in the bath, typing with a glass of Scotch in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was what they call a “card-carrying member of the Communist Party,” unafraid about his political views — which had earned him acclaim in the literary world as the author of “Johnny Got His Gun.” Trumbo attracted the attention of Los Angeles Times columnist Hedda Hopper, whose idea of patriotism involved abolishing the threat of communism in the industry. On the personal front, there’s wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three kids — the oldest of whom we watch grow into a confident young woman (Elle Fanning). Then, in the ’50s, we are privileged with scenes of Trumbo’s professional relationship with Frank (John Goodman) and Herman King (Stephen Root), producers of hilariously titled B-movies that provided Dalton with a living undercover. And there are even more characters who come and go, including some famous faces like David James Elliott‘s John Wayne and Christian Berkel‘s Otto Preminger, who are more caricatures than characters, but still undoubtedly memorable.
The film shows the screenwriter’s professional evolution, from blacklisted Hollywood writer and face of the notorious “Hollywood 10,” to a thankless life of writing under fictional names and winning Academy Awards on the couch. McNamara’s screenplay is filled with mighty one-liners, which everyone’s clearly having fun with. Gems like “I’m a screenwriter; if I couldn’t write shit, I’d starve,” or Louis C.K.’s one-of-a-kind delivery of beauts like, “he’s trying to sell his soul, but he can’t find it.” At times, it almost becomes too many good lines too fast (like in most every scene featuring Goodman), which halts the film’s rhythm and leaves little breathing room. Director Jay Roach knows a thing or three about entertaining audiences. He’s directed “Meet The Parents,” and the “Austin Powers” movies, but “Trumbo” is probably his best film, by virtue of association to the strongest ensemble he’s worked with, and an impeccable script. The film becomes particularly good once we enter the blacklisted segment of Trumbo’s career, when theatricality starts to take a backseat to a deeper insight into the egocentrical and self-righteous side of this man. He’s no longer just a cartoonish figure, chain-smoking in his bathtub, but a father screaming at his daughter on her birthday, a friend ignorant to the pain of others around him, and a husband bullying his wife out of arguments.