Bryan Cranston’s Academy Award-nominated performance in “Trumbo” isn’t even the best thing about this fascinating look at the notorious Hollywood “blacklist,” which kept screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and many others from working in the United States after being accused of Communism during our nation’s Red Scare after World World II. A straightforward, workmanlike telling of this tale does not keep it from being watchable, as the story itself is compelling no matter what.
Trumbo is shown in the 1940s as the highest-paid screenwriter in the world, but the combined forces of Joseph McCarthy and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) send him and his writer pals (notably Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk) to prison. Called the Hollywood Ten, they and many others were blacklisted from working in Hollywood even after they were released.
The film gets exciting as we see Trumbo working in secret to pay the bills, primarily because he works for a shoddy B-movie studio run by John Goodman, who instantly energizes the film. Soon the enterprising Trumbo has a little assembly line going, employing his fellow blacklisters using multiple phone lines and fake names.
It’s impossible not to be stirred by the dogged work of creative geniuses pitted against forces of censorship and fearmongering. And you can think of any number of contemporary situations to compare it with, heightening the drama depicted. As Edward G. Robinson, Michael Stuhlbarg is particularly effective; his personal struggle over whether to name names in the Communist witch hunt to save his career is painful to see.
However, some elements keep this movie good instead of great. It is always as straightforward and unimaginative as it can be, with situations explained too clearly, and drama often muted by a script that was clearly not written by a genius on the Trumbo level. Family conflicts are settled in a single conversation, and once Cranston’s performance reminded me of Burgess Meredith as the Penguin in “Batman,” I couldn’t take him as seriously.
While all the film’s turns of events were dramatic, I never got a sense of what the core struggle — Trumbo’s personal beliefs on Communism — actually meant to him or anyone else. They cost him everything, but Trumbo’s convictions on the subject of Communism were merely a plot point, never a character trait that was expressed.
Nevertheless, this was a serviceable exploration of a fascinating time in history, and enough talented actors, often portraying other talented actors, keep an inherently exciting story moving to a satisfying conclusion.
“Trumbo” is currently available to rent.