Dalton Trumbo spent a lot of time in the bath. However, unlike most people who spend time in the bath, the industrious screenwriter wasn't lolling in dreamy requiescence, or blowing bubbles in the steamy mist.
He was sitting upright in the water, puffing cigarettes, drinking booze, pumped on Benzedrine, and banging out page after page on a typewriter propped on a board.
In Trumbo, the oddly jolly cautionary tale based on the true-life political and professional ostracism of one of Hollywood's most talented scribes, even a congressional committee's fiercest condemnation can't keep our hero from producing reams of dialogue and action, romance and intrigue, shootouts and space voyages.
Except for one inglorious spell behind bars. As Trumbo - directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston, exuding an air of defiant exuberance - crucially notes, the screenwriter spent 11 months in a federal penitentiary. As one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors who refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Trumbo was cited for contempt of Congress. His daunting prolificity was temporarily thwarted.
Set in the years after World War II, when fear of the "Red Menace" - of creeping communism - spread across America, Trumbo details how fear and suspicion wormed their way into the movie biz, with actors and filmmakers branded as Stalinist sympathizers. Under pressure from conservatives in the media and the government, folks like Trumbo were blacklisted, denied work by the studio heads who once relied on them. Careers, indeed lives, were ruined.
Trumbo, who before the war had written Kitty Foyle (which won its star, Ginger Rogers, an Oscar) and more than a dozen other studio titles, could not afford ruination. He had a wife (the always great Diane Lane), a daughter, a ranch - and he had his principles. If anything was un-American, it was this witch-hunt that was turning friends into informants, colleagues into conspirators. So, Trumbo continued to produce screenplays under various pseudonyms, cranking the stuff out at bargain rates for B-movie producers - and for the discerning A-list mogul Otto Preminger (a regal, righteous Christian Berkel), who appreciated the screenwriter's prodigious gifts.
Trumbo goes at all of this in upbeat, old-fashioned Hollywood style. Helen Mirren plays the powerful, and powerfully right-wing, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper; Richard Portnow is MGM titan Louis B. Mayer, abandoning his support of Trumbo under mounting threats; Dean O'Gorman is Kirk Douglas, the film star who ultimately salvaged Trumbo's good name; and John Goodman is full of barrel-chested bluster as the low-rent screen schlockmeister Frank King. With actors impersonating the likes of Edward G. Robinson and John Wayne, with backlot confabs, poolside parties, and glammy soirees, Trumbo brings midcentury Tinseltown to picturesque life.
Cranston's performance is the g-force here, because even as HUAC and Hopper and the Hollywood establishment cast their allegations and accusations, even as Trumbo's confreres are seen brought to the brink of poverty, or worse, the movie doesn't convey much sense of real urgency or despair. It's a period piece full of colorful characters, natty costumes, jaunty music.
Its star makes it feel authentic nonetheless, in his bathtub with his specs and his cigarette holder, his Underwood and his Scotch.
*** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Jay Roach. With Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman. Distributed by Bleecker Street.
Running time: 2 hours, 4 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.EndText