Cranston shines as title character in Roach’s ‘Trumbo’ | The Triangle
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Cranston shines as title character in Roach’s ‘Trumbo’

In an age when spectacle almost always trumps story in film, it’s sometimes easy to forget that movie magic starts with the characters. If you can’t invest in your protagonists (or even antagonists), there will be no emotional effect on the audience, no matter how many explosions there are. Compelling characters make a compelling story and the unexpected duo of director Jay Roach and actor Bryan Cranston have done just that with “Trumbo.”

I say unexpected because it’s Jay Roach we’re talking about, the director who put fake breasts on Robert De Niro (“Meet The Fockers”) and punched a baby in the face (“The Campaign”). You wouldn’t think of him when you hear terms “McCarthyism” or “Hollywood Blacklist,” would you? But he tackles America’s Second Red Scare—one of the country’s darker chapters—in his best movie since the first “Austin Powers.”

The film’s title is a reference to an individual you may not have been able to recall off the top of your head: Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. However, you are familiar with his work even if you’ve never heard his name. Mega-hits “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus,” “The Brave One,” and “Exodus” are just a few of the projects he helped bring to the silver screen. He was a genius eccentric writer who just happened to enjoy clacking away on his typewriter while taking a soak in the bath tub.

“Trumbo” begins in 1947, only two years after World War II. The American public is deathly afraid of the “Red Menace,” so much so that Congress makes a special committee to weed out possible Soviet spies in the country with that favorite refrain of all Commie hunters:  “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Screenwriter Trumbo is a member and refuses to be looked down upon or silenced for his beliefs. He and nine other Hollywood employees are brought before The House Un-American Activities Committee but they refuse to admit their involvement in Communist activities. As a result, they are held in contempt of Congress, fined, and sent to jail. Moreover, they are banned from working in the motion picture business, and as a consequence branded as the infamous “Hollywood Ten.”

It sounds like the ridiculous and unfounded Salem Witch Hunts, but they actually happened and had devastating consequences for some people. Other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, no other bona fide subversives were ever found. Theodore Shapiro’s off-kilter score is reminiscent of cues made for “The Twilight Zone,” a great match to this topsy-turvy version of America. The filmmakers seamlessly blend the actors with stock footage of things like the Alger Hiss case (I see you, Nixon!) and cameos by classic stars like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball and even Ronald Reagan.

The eponymous screenwriter is played by the only man for the job, Bryan Cranston. Donning the historical figure’s curly-cue moustache, cigarette holder, and the Trans-Mid-Atlantic demeanor of a Hollywood Golden Age wise guy (he talks like everything he says will be carved in stone), Cranston truly becomes the role. He’s as much Trumbo as he is Heisenberg, giving a performance that’s worth an Oscar nomination at the very least. For instance, he made me shed a tear during a touching scene at Van Nuys airport, coincidentally the location where final emotional scene between Rick and Ilsa in “Casablanca” was filmed.  

The biopic is a real David and Goliath story as the underdog writer fights against the powers that expose the innate corruption and irony of the very system itself. He believes that one’s thought shouldn’t be a crime, an idea Orwell himself could get behind. To get back at those who shunned him, he begins writing hit movies under pseudonyms and for subpar studios and wins several Oscars for his work, although he can never claim credit for them. However, his affiliation to Communist organizations and his obsession with discrediting the fear of Communism takes a toll on his career, his friendships, and his family life.

Louis C.K. plays a fellow screenwriter, Arlen Herd, who points out how ridiculous the Cold War is, but it’s hard not to see him as a stand-up comic trying to be serious, even given one of the more comedic roles. On the other hand, Michael Stuhlbarg is the spitting image of Edward G. Robinson.  Helen Mirren stars as Hollywood gossip columnist and staunch Communist hater Hedda Hopper. She’s the physical embodiment of the era’s paranoia and could be the perfect villainess in a film noir.

And although he is always the hero of the big screen, John Wayne (David James Elliot) turns up as the hard head of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. John Goodman and Stephen Root have small roles as the owners of a second rate studio, but they get some of the best moments. Diane Lane and Elle Fanning are the most developed and relatable as Trumbo’s wife and daughter, voicing their displeasure at their patriarch’s non-stop crusade to end the Blacklist.   

As well as portraying a pivotal time in the life of Trumbo, the biopic serves as a portrait of a time gone by: of high-waisted pants and broad shouldered suits; a time when people had a decanter of whiskey on their bedroom dressers and chain-smoked like they were paid to do so. It was a time of the glamorous big studio system (I look forward to the Coen Bros. mocking the very same era of studio omnipotence in next year’s “Hail Caesar!”), but also a time of rampant anti-Semitism and racism, things the movie is not afraid to explore.

Funny, sad, and surprisingly didactic, “Trumbo” is a reminder of why we love character-driven movies. The moral of Mr. Trumbo’s ordeal: sometimes, all you need is a good story to make you rich and clear your name all at once.