Directed By: Jay Roach

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren, Alan Tudyk, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

Hollywood loves films about itself.  The proof is in the awards-filled pudding.  Movies about the movies have gotten lots of awards love over the last several years.  The Artist and Argo added Best Picture Oscars under their belts, while Hugo cleaned up in the technical awards categories across the board.  Films such as My Week With Marilyn, Hitchcock, and Saving Mr. Banks have been no strangers to the awards circuit either.  With the likes of Jay Roach's Trumbo, I don't think the trend will be too different (though I highly doubt the film is in the Best Picture race).  We've got a solid director, an impressive cast of veterans, and a story that deserves to be told on the big screen.  What more can we moviegoers ask for?

It's the 1940s.  Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is an accomplished screenwriter who has built a name for himself in Hollywood over the last decade.  He's also been building a name for himself in the Communist Party, with his friends Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk).  As the Cold War heats up, the Motion Picture Alliance picks a side, and it's certainly not with the Russian commies.  Hollywood heavyweights Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) make this abundantly clear.  When the House of Representatives forms the Un-American Activities Committee, they start targeting Hollywood elites who are supposedly poisoning one of the country's greatest influences — cinema.  Naturally, Trumbo is subpoenaed for a hearing with the Committee.

The subpoena carries with it a great deal of risk for Trumbo and the nine other film professionals being called to this hearing by the House Committee.  It threatens their careers, their families, and their very lives.  A fighter by nature, Trumbo goes to Washington with a less than friendly demeanor.  When he and his colleagues fail to answer the congressional committee’s questions about their beliefs and thoughts, they find themselves in a tricky position.  Being held in contempt of Congress, a daunting legal battle ensues for these individuals with the looming threat of incarceration.  They’re blacklisted from employment with studios across Hollywood and branded “The Hollywood Ten”.  All in all, it’s not a good time to be a communist in Hollywood.  Dalton Trumbo, his wife Cleo (Diane Lane), and their friends can all attest to this. 

Political correctness has been a hot button topic as of late, but not for everyone.  When Mizzou football players are ousting the school president and Yale is imploding because a faculty member makes an ill-fated comment about Halloween costumes, it’s safe to say that this topic is at the forefront of the younger generations’ minds.  When Republican presidential candidates get away with saying the dumbest, most offensive things in yet another pointless debate, this issue clearly becomes a bit more obfuscated for the older generations.  All that being said, Trumbo is a well-timed film that’s all about the freedom of speech.  More specifically, the freedom to think, vote, and believe as one chooses is the central theme of the film.  With the backdrop of the cinematic history behind Roman Holiday, The Brave One, and Spartacus, director Jay Roach hammers on this theme throughout the film with a stylized, darkly humorous approach that generally hits the spot.

The film centers on the life of the two-time Oscar winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.  With this in mind, Roach brings a number of Hollywood legends back to life.  From Hedda Hoppa and John Wayne to Louis B. Mayer and Kirk Douglas, the stars of yesteryear take center stage, and I must say that they’re brought to the big screen in grand fashion.  Roach does some incredible casting to get the right people to portray these legends we all remember.  If born in a different era, these cast members could have passed as their characters’ doppelgangers.  The make-up crew does the rest with some terrific work that delves into the details of recreating these historical celebrities.  Though I doubt this film will be a big player this awards season, bringing this many figures to back to life on the big screen is an impressive feat that deserves some recognition.

As much as I enjoy Trumbo, I have a quip with the film that’s going to sound very familiar to many of you if you’ve read my review of Steve Jobs.  Roach tells an insular story of the Cold War era without truly conveying the full scope throughout Hollywood and the nation at large.  One of the most infamous witch hunts in American history — what would become synonymous with McCarthyism — was at its dawn, impacting countless innocent Americans, not just the Hollywood Ten.  This challenged citizens’ abilities to rightly or wrongly think, believe, and affiliate themselves in certain ways.  While the film does lip service to the broader implications of these investigations into the “Reds” and has stylized transitions between the film itself and archival footage of political figures such as Nixon and Reagan, it doesn’t truly convey the bigger picture at hand here.  Showing future heads of state does not equate to grandness, which is exactly what’s missing here in Trumbo.

As our titular character, Bryan Cranston delivers one sharp, witty portrayal of the rambunctious screenwriter.  Full of delicious theatricality, measured drawn-out dialogue, and endless spunk, Cranston gives us one feisty and engaging lead character.  That being said, the Breaking Bad star risks making Trumbo a caricature with such a calculating performance, and I’m sure this won’t go unnoticed by moviegoers even as they enjoy his work here.  For her part as his on-screen nemesis Hedda Hoppa, Helen Mirren is an absolute delight.  She offers the thorny, indignant antagonist the film needs while helping Roach to maintain the tone of a black comedy.  For his part as Arlen Hird, Louis C.K. also plays a prominent role in the film, bringing plenty of humor and plenty of heart to the big screen.  Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, and John Goodman who all have some scene-stealing moments throughout the film as their respective characters.

I’ve got mixed feelings on Trumbo, but I can’t deny that I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie.  Like several of its peers in this fall movie season, this film stands at the border of greatness but doesn’t cross it.  Like several of its peers, the film lacks a certain grandness.  Still, it’s one enjoyable motion picture.  As it stands, Trumbo gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.