Thanks to high school students the country over having Arthur Miller's The Crucible as required reading, most people have at least heard of the McCarthy Trials. But unless that reader were alive during the era, they may not remember what the Army-McCarthy Hearings were about, exactly.
But even if you don't know a thing about the McCarthy Era heading into a viewing of Jay Roach's Trumbo, it doesn't matter. The film seeks to remind us that no matter what the trials were about on the surface, at their heart they were about the people whose lives were destroyed by the political witch hunt. And truly, it's the stellar performances by the cast that bring the characters to life and hold the sometimes uneven film together.
As the titular character, Bryan Cranston turns in a remarkable performance, one of those rare ones in which he completely ceases to be Bryan Cranston, actor playing Dalton Trumbo, and simply becomes Trumbo. From the truncated, old-timey cadence he uses, to the way he captures a writer's love of words with the way they roll off his tongue, his delivery is remarkable and raises the level of John McNamara's already quite good screenplay. His shuffling gait, the stooped shoulders and constant companion of a lit cigarette punctuating every gesture create a character that is compelling and sympathetic every time he is on screen. He absolutely deserves an Oscar nomination for this film, and he'll almost certainly get one.
The supporting cast is equally up to the task. As Trumbo's wife, Cleo, Diane Lane plays it with a quiet wisdom, the wife who knows when to support him implicitly, and when to call him on his hypocrisy - and there is much to call him on.
Others in the rogue's gallery of the persecuted Hollywood Ten and collaborators are just as good. Louis C.K. is a bit of an anachronism in a period film, but the blunt, salt-of-the-earthness of his demeanor provides the strongest foil for Trumbo's soaring rhetoric that often comes at the expense of earnestness. John Goodman steals every single scene he's in as sympathetic studio owner Frank King - one scene in particular with him and a baseball bat may be the highlight of the entire film. As actor Edward G. Robinson, Michael Stuhlbarg does an excellent job of capturing the impossible position so many Hollywood elite found themselves in at the time: name names of friends and colleagues, or risk having career and family utterly destroyed. Even Helen Mirren, as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, is sympathetic. She is a ruthless bitch in her doggedness to expose all of Hollywood's alleged Communists, but her fanaticism is given a sympathetic catalyst. You may not like her, but you can't not respect her.
That is Trumbo's true strength. The film does an excellent job of giving us a peek into a very specific time in our history where there were no easy answers, only impossible decisions. Alan Baumgarten's editing in of actual footage and sound bites from the time helps recreate Hollywood and Washington just as they were, in all their paranoia, as do Daniel Orlandi's costume design and Cindy Carr's sets.
But what Trumbo excels at in character and period building, it fails at in keeping an even tone. There are moments of humor in McNamara's script that are jarring in their placement. In a movie that wants to focus on the heartbreaking scenario in which the Hollywood Ten found themselves, wink-and-a-nod moments of misplaced levity don't always land and the sometimes lighthearted tone is often incongruous with the seriousness of the subject matter.
Another area of unevenness that takes one out of the film is the aging process. The main events of Trumbo span just over a decade, with the last scene jumping forward a few decades into the future, and character aging doesn't always make sense. Trumbo's eldest daughter, Niki, going from roughy eleven years old in appearance at most to suddenly being replaced by Elle Fanning as a gangly teenager during a period of time that spanned less than a year was a stretch in regard to one's willing suspension of disbelief. Likewise, that last scene was distracting and honestly took me out of the movie. During a closing scene that is meant to be poignant, I couldn't help but that a good portion of my attention was devoted to wondering who signed off on the styling: Thirty years later and Trumbo's daughter, now in her 30s or 40s, still looks like a teenager; wife, Cleo, seems barely to have aged, but Trumbo himself is now a shuffling old man with white hair and a frail figure.
But these are small complaints for a film carried almost entirely on the capable shoulders of Cranston and supported by the rest of the cast. It is a time capsule that transports us back to a complicated and dark time in our nation's history. As a reminder that were are not so very far removed from the witch hunt that ruined the lives of thousands, Trumbo excels.