Whether or not Bryan Cranston wins the Best Actor Oscar in February, this biopic will surely prompt a stream of sanctimonious recollection in Tinseltown about Dalton Trumbo, the irascible and prolific screenwriter who was in the front rank of the Hollywood Ten.
The industry shunned him and the others blacklisted in the congressional anti-communist purges of the 1940s and 50s. He died in 1976, though he was not given a full credit for his Oscar-winning script of the 1953 romantic comedy, Roman Holiday, until 2011.
This handsomely designed, if schematic, film makes amends somewhat, while offering Cranston (Breaking Bad's Walter White) the platform for a performance that practically sits up and begs for Academy votes.
Trumbo was a survivor, who devised a way of working when his name was poison (use pseudonyms and never turn down a job, no matter how humble). This is not to downplay his resoluteness in staring down the state's attempt to police his thoughts, but as drama, it is slightly problematic since he did not so much triumph over oppression as outlast it - it was only when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger announced, separately, that they had hired Trumbo to write their respective hits, Spartacus and Exodus, that the witch-hunts were doomed.
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The script (by John McNamara, making his big-screen feature debut) has some merits: it canters along, making as light as possible of some heavy exposition duties, and it's alive to the complexities that elude the moral absolutist even if it depicts them rather clunkily. The film does a terrific job of seamlessly merging archive footage into live action and offers some light relief in scenes involving Goodman as a producer who doesn't care who writes his schlock as long as he gets 30 pages a day. In the latter, one senses the touch of director Roach (whose Austin Powers films demonstrate his conviction that there is no such thing as being too obvious).
The baby-faced Kiwi O'Gorman's Douglas will surely raise a titter here, but Cranston nails Trumbo's gestures and eccentricities in a performance that is a triumph of impersonation. Yet it never gives a sense of what makes him tick and the script, which is conscious that it's telling a Very Important Story, puts a few too many high-flown pronouncements in his mouth.
When Louis CK (as Arlen Hird, a composite character standing in for Trumbo's comrades; his name is an anagram of "hardliner") asks him to "Stop talking as if everything you say is going to be chiselled into stone", it's hard not to feel like cheering.
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis CK, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Dean O'Gorman, David James Elliot
Director: Jay Roach
Running Time: 124 mins
Rating: M (Offensive language, adult themes)
Verdict: Enlightening, if heavy-handed