For a prestige drama about one of the more shameful periods in American history, Trumbo is surprisingly funny. It feels good to laugh at the idiocy surrounding the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s, if only so that you don't have to think too much about how widespread support was for the actions of the House un-American Activities Committee. Of course, Trumbo can't make you forget that this crap is going on right now; the movie is more whistling past the graveyard, because laughing makes for a fine change of pace over crying.
It's sort of marvelous how director Jay Roach – whose prior films have all been outrageous (sometimes outright stupid) comedies such as Meet the Fockers and the Austin Powers series – balances the silly and the solemn here. There's almost a whiff of something Coen Brothers in its slick sharpness. As screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Bryan Cranston finds a kind of infectious joy in the terrible and unjust situation of being "accused" of something – being a member of the Communist Party – that isn't illegal, and being punished for standing on principle. He'd done nothing wrong and he wasn't going to rat out his friends to save his own skin. Trumbo was probably the best known victim of the blacklist that saw him denied work and even sent to prison, and the impact on his life and work was significant: He was forced to write movies under false names, often for obscenely low pay, and even won Oscars that he could not publicly acknowledge. Yet Trumbo treats this all as a lark, a grand adventure, and above all, fodder for creative inspiration.
In a less beautifully accomplished film, saying that it treats something so grave as a lark would sound like harsh criticism, but the astonishing thing about Trumbo is that its lighthearted approach is actually deadly earnest. It buoys every point it has to make about freedom of speech and thought, and about having the courage of your convictions: When you have no interest in selling your soul, you have to laugh in the face of those who want to buy it. The film mines much of its ironic humor from its depictions of fear and betrayal in an industry devoted to and driven by profit and populated by insecure people terrified of losing their wealth and their privilege. The villains here are those who pander to public fear and ignorance, such as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren, in one of her great performances), who sees existential threats to America everywhere and lashes out with vicious cruelty in response; she could fairly be deemed the Ann Coulter of her day, and Trumbo makes her look like a tiny, terrified rodent. A dangerous terrified rodent, to be sure, but one to be looked upon with pity, and to whom disdain is the best response.
Ah, but Trumbo is not wholly kind to Trumbo, either! It gives him a foil in fellow screenwriter Arlen Hird (a fictional composite of other real-life blacklisted screenwriters); the comedian Louis C.K. is astonishingly good in his most dramatic role yet as an angry straight man to Trumbo's insouciant exuberance. Hird decries Trumbo for how he "talk[s] like a radical but ... live[s] like a rich guy," and is even more devoted to changing the world than Trumbo is. Hird paints Trumbo as the classic cliché of the Hollywood liberal, and it's tough not to agree with Hird. But it's also impossible not to see even classic-cliché-Hollywood-liberal Trumbo as most definitely an outsider. For all the many movies that Hollywood loves to make about itself and its foibles, this may be the one that cuts the deepest into its own fantasies about itself.
4 out of 5 stars