Dalton Trumbo was such an extraordinary personality it's surprising that a film hadn't been made about him before now. A devoted Communist whose antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun was serialized in the socialist newspaper the Daily Worker, he also enjoyed all of the bourgeois perks of his exorbitantly compensated life as a screenwriter during the flush years of Hollywood's Golden Age. But he was worth every penny paid to him by honchos like Louis B. Mayer, and for a while he assumed that his comfortable spot in the movie-studio hierarchy would protect him from the anti-Communist rumblings in Congress, and keep him happily typing away in the bath (his favorite place to work, where he had a special desk installed over the rim of the tub.) But in 1947 he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his entire life came crashing down.
Trumbo, an ambitious, lively, and period-perfect biopic about the disgraced screenwriter, chronicles the lean 13 years between his career-killing non-testimony to HUAC and his blacklist-ending screen credit appearing in both Spartacus and Exodus in 1960. How did Trumbo (Bryan Cranston, shrugging off that grim killjoy Walter White with a palpable sense of relief) shoulder the responsibility of providing for his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and their three children during that time? With lots of bon vivant optimism, scotch, cigarettes, and the help of screenwriter friends like Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), who took public credit -- including accepting an Oscar -- for Trumbo's screenplay for Roman Holiday. He also relied on Benzedrine-fueled typing marathons to churn out dozens of pseudonymous screenplays for B-movie schlock producers, represented in aggregate by a Poverty Row studio blowhard memorably played by John Goodman. ("We just got a gorilla suit," he tells Trumbo. "Write us a monkey movie in three days.")
Goodman is usually the best part of any film he's in, but here he has stiff competition from what pictures in Trumbo's era would have breathlessly described as "an all-star cast of thousands." On one side, there are conservatives Hedda Hopper (a splendidly chapeaued Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott), and on the other there are Trumbo's allies: screenwriter Arlen Hird (a composite character played with much weary aggravation by Louis C.K.), Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), and Kirk Douglas (New Zealander Dean O'Gorman, in a performance that feels like watching the actor reincarnated, even though the real Kirk Douglas is still alive). The dialect coach must have been the busiest person on the set, as well as the one with the most delicate job: He or she had to help various actors recreate Wayne's broad drawl, Hopper's fruity transatlantic warble, and Douglas' clipped, side-of-the-mouth timbre, all without turning the whole shebang into a wax museum. The end result is a success, and the convincing impersonations work in tandem with the meticulous, authentic, and warm (but not overly nostalgic) production design.
Audiences will be able to find parallels between Trumbo's time and our current political situation without digging too deeply, but overall, this movie lionizes old-fashioned American values like hard work, perseverance, meritocratic credit where credit is due, irrational optimism, and the triumph of the idiosyncratic individual over bullies and fascists. Film buffs will relish this window into a bygone time, but even for audiences with little knowledge of the era or the man, this well-crafted movie will feel as sprightly, clever, insightful, and absorbing as those Trumbo wrote himself.