An overly careful performance by Bryan Cranston in the central role anchors “Trumbo,” the story of arguably the best-known member of the Hollywood 10, the screenwriters famously blacklisted by the major studios at the height of the Red Scare in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Dalton Trumbo was well-known (and highly paid) for his screenplays, which included such hits as “Kitty Foyle” and “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.” He was also, during the 1940s, a member of the Communist Party.
Director Jay Roach (”Meet the Parents”), working from a script by John McNamara, dramatizes Trumbo’s fall from favor in 1947 after defying inquisitors of the House Un-American Activities Committee. His refusal to answer the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” and his excoriation of the witch-hunting, free speech-trampling climate of the times leads to his blacklisting, his confinement in federal prison and the derailing of his screenwriting career
Roach’s direction is pedestrian. He turns the picture into an earnest primer of the issues of the era and a road map of how Trumbo slowly resuscitates his career, even, despite the blacklist, winning two Oscars, concealing his authorship behind a frontman and a pseudonym.
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Cranston is surprisingly low-key, showing intensity during the House committee sequence, but is much more restrained in almost every other scene.
“Trumbo” only truly comes alive during scenes with Helen Mirren, who in the role of Red-baiting gossip columnist and chief Trumbo foe Hedda Hopper, chews scenery with a vengeance, and John Goodman, bullying and funny in the role of a schlock-movie producer who hires Trumbo to (anonymously) to write potboilers.
Questionable creative decisions also harm the movie. John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Edward G. Robinson figure prominently in the story. All are played by actors who, at best, give impressions rather than fully dimensional portrayals of three of the most recognizable icons in Hollywood history. They’re a huge distraction, yanking the viewer right out of the picture whenever they appear.
☆☆☆out of 5
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning.
Director: Jay Roach.
Running time: 2:04.
Rated: R, for language including some sexual references.