It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
The popcorn’s popping, the crowds are gathering, and those pesky limited releases are finally getting to the general public in hopes of snagging a nomination for my beloved personal Super Bowl, the Oscars! The race has begun, so before the nominees are announced January 14, the studios are pushing the pride of their harvest, hoping to land at the least consideration for one of those gilded statuettes. The first films I’ve managed to see that I know to be striving for consideration is Jay Roach’s biopic of much-maligned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston as the titular TRUMBO.
Bryan Cranston, as always, owns the film, playing the unflappable screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, leading the fight against the Red Scare in US courts and tirelessly concocting stories for various studio bosses behind pseudonyms so as to keep his family living in comfort. A communist in belief, he is held in contempt of Congress when he refuses to answer questions before HUAC and sent to prison. After serving his sentence, he finds the big studios don’t seek him out because of the stigma of his politics in the wake of McCarthyism, and instead seems doomed to work in B-movies and trash pictures like The Alien and the Farm Girl for the rest of his days due to his blacklisting. Even his neighbors make evident their disdain for him in their petty acts of vandalism to intimidate his family.
However, his passion and quality of work (including the likes of Roman Holiday and The Brave One) spreads the word of his still-present talent and eventually draws the attention of powerful, A-list Hollywood players such as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, and the ire of John Wayne and gossip queen Hedda Hopper. In order to combat the crushing and relentless atmosphere of work, Trumbo enlists the aid of his children and devoted wife to help him cruise through screenplays bestowed on him by the company, while he sneaks his classier works to the bigwigs. Cranston has always had a knack for making us in awe of an average man’s amount of integrity and energy, from Malcolm in the Middle to last year’s GODZILLA. He is always pleasant to watch and has a wry wit that permeates this sometimes harrowing picture.
The rest of the cast is of particular mention as making the ticket price worth it. Joining Cranston is Diane Lane as his aforementioned wife, American treasure John Goodman as a cheapo movie producer who employs Trumbo after his prison sentence, cult favorite Alan Tudyk as a still-employed front for Trumbo’s classier work, Louis C.K. brings an anarchic edge to his extremist partner-in-crime to Trumbo, and Dame Helen Mirren oozes a petty grandeur as the debonair and equally detestable gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper.
A key standout in the supporting cast is Kiwi actor Dean O’Gorman playing legendary leading man Kirk Douglas. Mr. O’Gorman did such a great job that I hope they find time to make a Kirk Douglas biopic so he has an excuse to keep playing him.
The film plays out quite well, never stooping to clichéd routes of storytelling outside of the final speech, where it felt deserved. It takes a special hand to make these true life accounts not seem like they’re going by the numbers as some biopics can easily go (*cough* 42 *cough*). In terms of telling the story without overstaying its welcome, it is also a success, being very brisk in pacing. Whenever something dour happens, Trumbo proverbially brushes off his coat and continues onward, unswayed by the roadblocks before him.
If you’re still wondering if this qualifies as an awards contender, this film is leading the Screen Actors Guild awards in nominations, a sure sign of Oscar-worthiness. As a history lesson, TRUMBO proves just as watchable as one of the History Channel’s epic mini-series, and as a tale about the dangers of hateful group-think, it’s a film that could be useful as a tool exploring the consequences of blacklisting others because of their differences, regardless of your political or religious beliefs. Check it out at a theater near you!