It's 2015 and we've got a self-described Democratic socialist chasing the presidency, so there's something curious about the director of "Meet The Parents" and the Austin Powers franchise tackling McCarthyism.
Jay Roach, reformed heavyweight comedy helmer, continues the crusade for gravitas he started with "Recount" and "Game Change," this time by reaching into the past to dramatize the plight of the blacklisted writers and directors whose communist affiliations prevented them from working in the film industry in the '50s and '60s.
Bryan Cranston is an easy Oscar contender for his turn as Dalton Trumbo—his twirlable mustache, affection for cigarette holders and writing in the bathtub, and whiskey-soaked typing sessions make him less a person and more a walking, talking confluence of nostalgic writer ephemera—but the film he's the face of is caught between two dueling approaches.
Roach's primary concern here is the injustice of the Red Scare, but as a polemicist, he's comically out of his depth. The film's first third resembles a TV movie even more than Roach's actual television work, plagued by a perfunctory period pace that makes little effort to transcend the tired strictures of cinematically turning back the clock. Choosing to frame a narrative about political discrimination around a bunch of well-to-do Hollywood types is foolhardy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the mercifully short distance their fall to the bottom entails. It's apparent that this chapter in history fills Roach with some measure of belly fire, but assuming the average filmgoer will relate to a bunch of WASP-y dudes not getting paid handsomely to play make-believe is a big gamble. There's a scene where a frustratingly effete Edward G. Robinson (played admirably by Michael Stuhlbarg) has sold one of his Van Goghs because the increased scrutiny of the hearings has dried up his acting work. This is a film that unironically expects you to feel sympathy for a movie star selling a fucking painting.
It isn't that Trumbo and his compatriots were wrong to stick it to Congress or that their refusal to cooperate wasn't noble. It's just that for 40 or so minutes, this movie doesn't do much to make their struggles anything more than a well-lit re-enactment, a lifeless approximation of a moment in time better captured in any number of documentaries. Once Trumbo's master plan of appealing to the Supreme Court is felled by the untimely death of two liberal justices and he's sent to prison, you expect some of the June Cleaver mediocrity of it all to lessen, but even a scene as potentially gritty as the aged scribe being stripped naked upon arrival is handled with an insulting vanilla safeness. You can't help but imagine what a more subversive director (say, a Steven Soderbergh) might have done with this material. Outside of Helen Mirren's deliciously sinister turn as gossip maven Hedda Hopper, it's a toothless affair, taking for granted that maybe the persecution of the liberal elite isn't quite the evergreen narrative topic it once was.
When it really gets cooking, however, is once Trumbo makes it out jail. Roach eases up on the prestige drama gleam and the film settles into a less universal, but infinitely more engrossing picture about how Trumbo and fellow blacklisted writers re-infiltrate Hollywood using pen names and fronts. Coupled with a game cast (featuring Louis CK, John Goodman, and Alan Tudyk), Roach's natural comedic chops go to work crafting an inside-baseball look at what a hustle filmmaking really is. It turns into this charming, clandestine heist movie as Trumbo's new (more modest) home becomes something of a screenwriting trap house, complete with multiple phone lines, couriers, and late-night grinding sessions. It's somewhere between Cranston's former Heisenberg operation from "Breaking Bad" and how you might imagine rapper Drake's basement operates—an army of nameless scribes pooling their talent in service of a single man's ignoble quest for greatness.
The conflict surrounding Trumbo's motivations during this period provides some of the film's most incendiary moments, and a great deal of that power rests on the chemistry between Cranston and CK (as Arlen Hird, portrayed here as The Hollywood Ten's most radical member). The two spar verbally about the differing lengths they're willing to go to change the landscape. Trumbo has his ideals, but his comfortable life and caring for his family trumps any thirst for revolution, while Hird, having little left but his poisoned lungs and a whole lot of anger, can't get on board with Trumbo's quest to get back into Hollywood by any means necessary. Cranston taps into more than a little of Walter White's self-obsessed Great White Man timbre for this arc, but his familial bonds (with Diane Lane as his wife and Elle Fanning as his eldest daughter) ground him in a way Heisenberg was never afforded. Obviously, cooking meth and writing rom-coms are two different schemes, but in its best moments, "Trumbo" is a film that reminds you how nefarious a racket Hollywood really can be.
Divorced from the desire in the final act to make something "important," Roach indulges in some more subtle, but considerably more potent, visual storytelling. A slow, churning push in on a blank page in a typewriter speaks volumes about the process of writing, and a two shot anchored by the solemn thud of a falsely awarded Oscar on the table between Trumbo and his "Roman Holiday" co-conspirator similarly conveys so much with so little. Between these softer touches and some legitimate hilarious bits (including a reliably raucous outburst from Goodman as garbage movie producer Frank King and every single thing Christian Berkel's Otto Preminger says or does), "Trumbo" succeeds like the funnier parts of "Argo" by trading on our collective fascination with Hollywood's yesteryear. It overextends itself by trying to say something profound about personal integrity, privacy, and politics, but even that toxic ambition is so characteristically Hollywood that it's hard to be disappointed.