Movies are the most powerful tool ever created, and they are infested with traitors!"
So says one of the government's red-blooded commie hunters in Trumbo, the new biographical drama starring Bryan Cranston as the great Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Beginning in the 1940s and wrapping up in the 1970s, the film tells the story of the infamous Hollywood blacklist through the biography of its most interesting victim.
Trumbo, a successful studio scribe and card-carrying member of the American Communist Party, was convicted for contempt of Congress after refusing to give information to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. A cabal of studio executives, under pressure from the federal government, blacklisted Trumbo and nine others, who later became known as the Hollywood Ten.
Trumbo served a year in prison on the conviction and was unable to get meaningful work in the industry for more than a decade. He continued to write, though, passing scripts to acquaintances and publishing under pseudonyms. He even won an Oscar for The Brave One while blacklisted, which is a pretty neat trick and makes for a great story.
You wouldn't know it from the first half of Trumbo, though. Screenwriter John McNamara (TV's Lois and Clark) follows blunt history from episode to episode, and it's pretty miserable from a storytelling point of view. Meanwhile, director Jay Roach (Austin Powers) stages sequences like slightly classed-up dramatizations from the History Channel.
But just when audience despair threatens to go Code Red, Trumbo gets a significant second wind. This is largely due to the killer supporting cast, especially John Goodman as bat-wielding B-movie producer Frank King, who employs Trumbo to churn out his no-budget gangster and werewolf scripts. Louis C.K. tears up the joint, too, upstaging Cranston, which is hard to do.
The second half is like a whole different movie, and it's worth sticking around for. As Trumbo makes his triumphant comeback, he uses a kind of political jujitsu against his tormentors, leveraging Washington gutlessness and Hollywood greed for his own crafty purposes. Cranston is finally given something to do besides rage and pontificate, and it's interesting to watch Trumbo's plans come together.
The movie's other lingering pleasure is seeing a parade of Hollywood heavyweights pass through as supporting characters in Trumbo's story—Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger, Louis B. Mayer. When John Wayne swaggers in as a dim-bulb bully, Trumbo dices up his empty jingoism with precision jabs and razor-edged rejoinders. It's all lost on the Duke, though, who looks like a dog watching a card trick.
The deck is stacked, of course, and everything here feels terribly self-congratulatory. But it's still good, clean, American fun.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Three American dreams"