There are no heroes or villains in this story, just victims, explains Hollywood screenwriter Dalston Trumbo towards the end of Jay Roach's biopic, Trumbo. Trumbo, like many others in the industry and beyond, was blacklisted during the 1940s and 1950s for his political beliefs.
Indeed, brave, charismatic and clever as Trumbo, portrayed here by Bryan Cranston, is shown to be, he doesn't make an especially likeable hero at times: he is often selfish, vain and bullying. He is, however, a remarkable character and Cranston really deserves his Oscar nod for the role. Trumbo itself is sharp and engrossing, with sparkling dialogue and a lot more humour than I was expecting, although perhaps I should have checked out Roach's back catalogue.
Roach's film opens in 1947 as Trumbo and a number of other writers and directors — soon dubbed the Hollywood Ten — come under suspicion for their association with the Communist Party. Trumbo, their de facto leader, calls for his colleagues to refuse to testify when questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Some, including Trumbo, are jailed and all are blacklisted, unable to find work in Hollywood, thanks in part to campaigns by actress and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played by a wonderfully bitchy Helen Mirren), producer Buddy Ross (Roger Bart) and John Wayne (David James Elliott).
Trumbo follows its titular star over the next two decades as he tries to raise awareness of the absurdness of the blacklist and to do what he loves best — writing. The latter proves quite challenging, until he realises that he can sell scripts to studios under a pseudonym. He even sets up a sort of pyramid scheme of writing and editing — studio boss Frank King (John Goodman) assigns Trumbo various scripts to write, he farms them out to his fellow blacklisted writers and then edits the scripts to ensure that they are of a suitable standard.
But as Hopper and her cronies hear rumours of this move, it is clear that they won't go down without a fight. And Trumbo has other things to worry about: for one thing, his friend Arlen Hird (an amalgamation of several writers, played by Louis C. K.) is struggling with cancer and sometimes questions the purity of Trumbo's motives. Meanwhile, Trumbo's wife Cleo (a beleaguered Diane Lane) and three children, who are all coerced into helping to run the 'family business' of script production and delivery, have to put up with an increasingly irascible and thoughtless husband and father. The loving father and doting husband of the late 1940s seems to have long since disappeared.
I knew embarrassingly little about Trumbo and the Hollywood blacklist before I saw Trumbo, and Roach's film tells a fascinating story about a very dark period of American history. Cranston is terrific in the central role; his Trumbo is outspoken, clever, bossy and bold. Mirren too puts in a great performance — her eyebrows alone deserve a Oscar nomination — but Roach has assembled a talented ensemble cast. John McNamara's script, adapted from Bruce Cook's biography of Trumbo, is as adept as the script of a film about screenwriters ought to be: it is witty, engaging and hugely entertaining. Listen out for the inevitable but well-played Spartacus gag. Trumbo has a lot in common with Argo, including cast members Cranston and Goodman; both examine the interface of Hollywood and politics, and both are great movies for movie-lovers.