Director: Jay Roach
Writer: John McNamara
Cinematographer: Jim Denault
Composer: Theodore Shapiro
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Roger Bart, Stephen Root, Michael Stuhlbarg.
This film should feel like an anachronism in today’s world. A movie about a time when people could be attacked, arrested, imprisoned, and shunned or blacklisted based purely on an intellectual ideology should feel as remote as riding around in a penny-farthing. Even if we were to disregard all the different points of view that have these very real results, the same one that is addressed in this film is still, bizarrely, an issue nowadays. Although the Cold War ended in 1991 the rhetoric has anachronistically still stuck around, long past its expiration date. Anytime a politician (usually from the right side) wants to scare and infuriate the American public and intimidate an opponent all they have to do is refer to said person as a communist or socialist and suddenly it’s as if the most offensive and dangerous word in the world has been just uttered. Regardless of the fact that such accusations are nearly, if not, always laughable and utterly untrue, the fact that this is still an effective maneuver speaks more to the ignorance of the ears upon which they fall than to the speaker, who is simply manipulating language and rhetoric to their advantage.
Nowadays we can brush off accusations of communism and marxism and/or contextualize these specific positions without too much trouble, but there was a time when merely the implication could lead someone to lose their livelihoods, their status, their good name, all because of a simple accusation. In other parts of the world, such as in Indonesia, this witch-hunt for communisms in the States was mimicked with deadly and horrific consequences. Stateside, fortunately (?), things never became so utterly bloody. Nonetheless the red scare did destroy lives, many of them, and its proponents (political like Senator McCarthy and famous like John Wayne, alike) never strayed from their convictions, truly believing they were in the right, even though no positive effects of such behavior were ever demonstrated.
This film zeroes in on Dalton Trumbo, a vastly successful Hollywood screenwriter, whose association to the Communist party took him first to prison and then led to him being blacklisted for decades, unable to work in the business he was so successful in. The movie focuses its attention on the blacklisted years and the subversion of the system by Trumbo and a group of fellow exiled writers, as they worked under pseudonyms and churned out scripts and movies in spite of the regulations set up to keep them out. The fact that during this time Trumbo won two Academy Awards (one for Roman Holiday and the other for The Brave One) was a well known secret that irritated those who wished his utter demise due to his beliefs. The film follows Trumbo all the way through his work on the scripts for Spartacus and Exodus.
Sometimes the film has a zany and cartoonish quality, which is probably due to direction and casting. Jay Roach is primarily a director of low-brow comedies, having stretched himself only on television. I know people love him, but Bryan Cranston, who plays Trumbo, can sometimes be a bit over the top and exaggerate mannerisms and emotions, resulting in a caricature rather than a portrayal. The supporting cast is fine, but there are no real standouts, in spite of the attention that Helen Mirren is receiving for playing the real-life gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. I was at a party a couple of months ago and someone I was speaking to thought this film was written and directed by the Coen brothers, based on the trailer. Watching the movie I wished it had been – visually it was completely in their style, and had they been able to instill some of their stylings into the tone of the film then it would have really worked. As is, though, the film will mostly be forgettable unless it gets some Oscar love in a couple of weeks. It’s a fine biopic, but it was missing heart and needed to be more grounded.