‘Trumbo’ excels with tale of defiance and sacrifice in time of fear

By Griffin Lyons

(Official 'Trumbo' Facebook Page)
(Official ‘Trumbo’ Facebook Page)

“Trumbo” is most interesting when its titular character (played by Bryan Cranston) is pitted against figures with a personality as distinct and proclaimed as his own. Thankfully, the film is replete with these moments. The direction of Jay Roach and gorgeous visuals from cinematographer Jim Denault bolster a compelling script by John McNamara, adapted from the autobiography “Dalton Trumbo” by Bruce Cook, to tell a story about the cost and value of principle in the face of injustice.

“Trumbo” follows its protagonist’s life beginning with his conviction for perjury in 1947. Called to testify before the powerful, dubiously constitutional House Un-American Activities Committee about his outspoken leftist political convictions, the Hollywood screenwriter and nine of his colleagues are convicted of perjury for refusing to cooperate with the hearings and name any of their fellow dissidents.

They are all subsequently blacklisted by major Hollywood studios, pressured by figures like the ardently anti-communist Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). What ensues is a powerful study of the line between bravery and moral vainglory.

Cleo (Diane Lane), Trumbo’s wife, and Nikola (Elle Fanning), their oldest child, are two of the film’s best characters. They serve not merely as foils but as fully realized people in their own right. They meet Trumbo with challenge and defiance as his own sense of importance threatens to engulf and blind him to their needs, especially to those of Nikola, who’s a burgeoning activist following in the footsteps of her father. At a time in which many purportedly biographical films still reduce the women in their casts to a scrim of unconditional support or arbitrary troublesomeness, the fullness of Lane and Fanning’s roles is refreshing.

In the course of his quest to expose the ridiculousness of the Hollywood blacklist, Trumbo spars with, defies and is inspired by a host of characters, played richly and impeccably by a wide-ranging cast. Mirren excels as one of Trumbo’s most dogged foes and the very picture of vehemence, lending the film a sense of political scope that keeps its very real historical subject matter from turning into mere decoration for its personal drama.

In a standout role, comedian Louis C.K. turns in a great performance as screenwriter Arlen Hird, an even more fervent leftist than Trumbo and an active challenger to the comfort of his conscience. John Goodman provides some of the film’s strongest moments of out-and-out comedy as Frank King, the head of a third-rate studio who hires Trumbo and his fellow blacklisted writers to pseudonymously punch up the scripts of B-movie schlock.

Similarly, Christian Berkel is notable as the demanding, slightly eccentric Austrian director Otto Preminger, as is Dean O’Gorman as film star Kirk Douglas, who enlists Trumbo as the writer on the screenplay for the film that will be the ultimate test of the blacklist: “Spartacus.”

It is these tête-à-têtes with enemies and loved ones alike that keep “Trumbo” from being an award-baiting glory vehicle. They instead turn the film into a well-paced, carefully composed exploration of one of the darkest times in contemporary American history.

Griffin Lyons can be reached at [email protected].