Known almost exclusively for goofball comedies - three “Austin Powers” movies, “Meet the Parents” and others - filmmaker Jay Roach would seem an unlikely choice to direct “Trumbo.”
There isn’t much that’s funny about the story of the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), who suffered persecution in the 1940s and 1950s for his affiliation with the American Communist party. While it’s true that Trumbo, played by Bryan Cranston with a mix of world-weary humor and bitter melancholy, could be a witty guy, his life was not exactly a laugh riot.
That said, Roach does an adequate job of conveying the basic contours of Trumbo’s later years, beginning in 1947 with an investigation into his politics by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and following the writer’s 11-month imprisonment for contempt of Congress and his struggles to make a living. If those around Trumbo are painted with a broad brush - including conservative cowboy actor John Wayne (David James Elliott) and smarmy gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) - Cranston brings sufficient nuance to his central performance to keep things from becoming cartoonish.
The movie boasts an odd and at times disorienting mixture of archival footage (featuring the likes of Ronald Reagan and Richard M. Nixon in newsreels) and impersonations of historical figures that vary widely in their verisimilitude. Elliott’s Wayne, for instance, neither looks nor sounds anything like the real person he’s portraying, while Michael Stuhlbarg’s Edward G. Robinson is uncannily accurate. Mirren, for her part, delivers a cardboard caricature of villainy, in the way Hopper used her newspaper column as a tool of Red-baiting.
After a somewhat tedious and overly episodic first half, in which the screenplay by veteran television scribe John McNamara (“Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”) hops back and forth between heavy-handed political argument and plot exposition, “Trumbo” becomes a far more successful movie.
Midway through, at the point where Trumbo has been released from jail and is trying to cobble together a career - pseudonymously writing both hack scripts and ones that went on to win Academy Awards (“Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One”) - the film settles into a fascinating groove. The logistics of how Trumbo survived, fronting a stable of other blacklisted writers and churning out his own work under various aliases, make for a great yarn.
Using family members to courier his finished scripts to studios, because he couldn’t show his face, Trumbo kept writing - often in his bathtub - despite the toll on his family. Elle Fanning is particularly good as Trumbo’s teenage daughter, Niki, for whom the stress of her father’s secret life was not insignificant.
In the decade between the film’s opening and 1957, when “The Brave One” won the Oscar for original screenplay (under the pen name Robert Rich), Cranston’s Trumbo seems to age, based on hair and makeup, 20 years. Watching the actor disappear under white hair and latex wrinkles feels disconcertingly stagy at first. But when you think about the physical toll on Trumbo that this hidden life must have taken - and Cranston makes it impossible not to - the weathered face that we see at the end of the film doesn’t look like a mask at all.
Rated R for obscenity, including some sexual references, brief nudity and copious smoking. 2:04.