By John Campbell
For anybody interested in the history of cinema, this arrives as an excellent companion piece to Hail Caesar. Admittedly, the Coens were having fun, but their story, set during the McCarthy witch-hunt of the early fifties, is connected to the threat of blacklisting that hung over the heads of screenwriters seen to be involved in un-American activities.
The real-life Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was a prize scalp, for at the time he was one of Hollywood’s most prolific and successful writers. He also happened to be a paid-up member of the Communist Party, which was anathema to middle America as the Cold War began to grip the nation’s collective paranoia.
The anomaly that never permits this film to get a foothold on the highest moral ground, despite its near hagiographic portrayal of Trumbo, falls between word and deed. For all his lefty leanings and steely rebellion, Trumbo still lived on a ranch with his own lake; ‘what would you be willing to give up for the sake of equality?’, asks Rocco (David Maldonado), his closest compatriot – who gets the movie’s second-best line with ‘Hollywood needs scripts like an army needs toilet paper’.
After serving time in jail, Trumbo writes under a nom de plume for a B-grade studio whose operator (John Goodman) is ‘only interested in money and pussy’ and he is so good at what he does that he is able to farm out work to his ostracised mates. Director Jay Roach is again inclined to highlight the little battler against the establishment rather than the deeper social schisms that were reflected in the industry – but it’s probably nitpicking to say that, for Trumbo (he wrote the classics Roman Holiday and Spartacus was a great artist persecuted by bigotry but defiant to the end.
I only briefly had trouble liberating Cranston from his Mr White of Breaking Bad but left not entirely convinced that Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) was the Lady Macbeth of the anti-Commie movement. And Dean O’Gorman does a swell Kirk Douglas in a movie of unflagging energy and intriguing revelation.