Trumbo, film review: Bryan Cranston triumphs over the biopic clichés

(15) Jay Roach, 124 mins. Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Alan Tudyk, John Goodman, Elle Fanning

Jay Roach's Trumbo is one of a pair of "commies in Hollywood" films released in British cinemas over the next month. The other is the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! For all their surface similarities, the two films couldn't be more different. The Coens' effort is a blithely light-hearted and playful farce in which the communists (who kidnap a Victor Mature-like movie star played by George Clooney) are portrayed as benign and bumbling idealists. Trumbo is altogether darker. Roach may be best known for comedies such as Meet the Parents and Austin Powers but he is in deadly earnest in his portrayal of the anti-communist witch hunts in Hollywood after the Second World War.

The film is a biopic of the author Dalton Trumbo, who won a National Book Award for his 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun and then went on to become a highly successful screenwriter. After the war, though, as anti-Soviet hysteria mounted, Trumbo was forced to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about his communist sympathies. He refused to give evidence, and was blacklisted and jailed for 10 months.

For years afterward, he was forced to work anonymously. His later scripts included Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), which both won Oscars, but he wasn't credited. The Oscar-nominated Bryan Cranston gives a wonderful performance as Trumbo, an elegant, witty figure, both courageous and fond of his creature comforts. He is dapper and particular in his habits, smoking a cigarette through a holder and working on screenplays in the bath with his whisky beside him. He "talks like a radical" but lives like a "rich guy". With his spectacles and moustache, he looks a little like Groucho Marx and shares his flair for one-liners. He is also a contradictory figure whose selflessness is combined with a strong streak of egotism. He's the family man who is always so busy working that he has little time either for his wife and children or, indeed, for his politics.

Trumbo's nemesis is the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who speaks of "registered communists" as if they are child molesters. As played by Helen Mirren, she is a comic figure who dresses absurdly – she is seen in a succession of ever gaudier floral hats and dresses. She has a veneer of charm but you don't have to scrape hard to find the malevolence and viciousness beneath. In a chilling scene, she blackmails and harangues the MGM boss, Louis B Mayer, and calls Jewish people "kikes". At times, her anti-communism appears simply as a mask for her anti-Semitism.

As the House Un-American Activities Committee cranks up, Trumbo and fellow communist sympathisers (most of them screenwriters) try to fight back against the bullying. When they are subpoenaed, they respond by refusing to name names or to confirm or deny that they are, or ever have been, members of the Communist Party. Their hope is to invoke their First Amendment rights and to rely on the Supreme Court. Trumbo was one of the so-called "Hollywood 10," fired, blacklisted and slung in jail.

A problem with the film is that it is so focused on its main protagonist that it risks losing sight of everyone else. Roach makes excellent use of archive footage, some of it real and some of it shot for the film, and at times seems to try to broaden the canvas – but we always end up back with the camera trained on Trumbo, usually with him pounding away at his typewriter in the bath. The other characters are strictly there in a supporting capacity. The political issues (explained succinctly in opening intertitles) are largely skimmed over as Trumbo tries to revive his career and shatter the blacklist by writing scripts under other people's names.

Diane Lane has a thankless time as Trumbo's long-suffering wife, Cleo. We're given no sense of her background. In an early scene, she is shown juggling glasses (Cleo grew up in a vaudeville family) but that is the one time in the movie in which she is not reacting to or worrying about her husband. It is perverse to give such a fine actor such a sketchily drawn role.

The film stumbles into familiar biopic potholes. The actors don't always look or sound like the Hollywood figures they are playing. As commie-bashing John Wayne, David James Elliott has the right physique and drawl but you wouldn't choose him as Wayne in an identity parade. Dean O'Gorman's Kirk Douglas bears an uncanny resemblance to the star of Spartacus, but doesn't have his voice or his presence. As Otto Preminger, Christian Berkel is bald and imperious but his acting feels caricatured. Michael Stuhlbarg gives a moving performance as conscience-torn movie star Edward G Robinson, even if he doesn't remotely look like the actor he is playing. Louis CK's blue-collar turn as communist screenwriter Arlen Hird (a composite figure) isn't developed in much depth. There is an enjoyable cameo from John Goodman as film company boss Frank King – a baseball bat-wielding but honest hustler in Hollywood for the "money and the pussy" – but these characters are ciphers. The main action revolves almost entirely around Trumbo.

Roach makes us painfully aware of the humiliation Trumbo endured during the blacklist period. In one of the grimmest scenes, this cultured intellectual is made to strip by a prison guard: "Spread your cheeks!" Trumbo is stoical in the face of indignity. He has a formidable work ethic, aided by popping amphetamines. He writes some of his most celebrated scripts behind the backs of Hooper and studio bosses, working on The Brave One and Spartacus while he turns out potboilers for Frank King.

Like Walter White, the teacher-turned-drug dealer Cranston played in Breaking Bad, his Trumbo blossoms in adversity. He combines heroism and charm with a big measure of self-obsession and conceit, too. The film itself is very uneven. Any texture, depth and pathos here resides in the central performance.

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