Trumbo—yet another stellar film in a bountiful November at the cinema—goes down like a near-perfect martini. With Bryan Cranston in the lead role, Trumbo is smooth but peppered with powerful bitters, reminding us it wasn't so long ago our nation put people behind bars for what they thought as much as for what they did.
The question still haunts our history: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?"
In 1947, when that question was put to Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood's most provocative playwright, he responded, "Many questions can be answered 'yes' or 'no' only by a moron or a slave." His response got a good laugh during a meeting of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. What many people have forgotten over time, however, is it also earned Trumbo a Contempt of Congress conviction and a prison sentence. In one particularly pungent sequence of Trumbo, we see the Oscar-winning playwright strip-searched before surrendering his identity, henceforth to be known as Prisoner No. 7551.
Trumbo was once Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter, responsible for films like Roman Holiday and Kitty Foyle. Like many other Americans, he was also a communist sympathizer. For the record, so were Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copland and Lillian Hellman.
The film reveals that while Hollywood was a dream factory, it was also a nasty place in post-war America. Because of his affiliation, Trumbo was ostracized, blacklisted and, worst of all, unemployed.
After serving his term in federal prison, Trumbo returned to Hollywood but couldn't secure any work despite his credentials. He began writing scripts under false names, and it wasn't long before Trumbo was cranking out some of the best scripts in Hollywood—not that audiences would have known. In a particularly fascinating scene, we watch as one of his screenplays, written under a nom de plume, wins the Academy Award. Of course, no one was there to claim the Oscar, sending all of Hollywood abuzz.
And then there was Spartacus.
One evening, a young Kirk Douglas arrived at Trumbo's door to ask the screenwriter to work on a new film starring Douglas and directed by a young filmmaker named Stanley Kubrick. Douglas insisted Trumbo's name be attached to the script. What followed was a game-changing moment in U.S. history and the stuff that makes Trumbo, the movie, so grand.
Cranston, who has conquered television (he earned several Emmys for Breaking Bad) and Broadway (he won the 2014 Best Actor Tony for his portrayal of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in All the Way) is now almost certainly a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work in Trumbo, helped by a wonderful supporting cast, which includes Louis C.K., Helen Mirren, Diane Lane and John Goodman, who would steal the show if it wasn't already in Cranston's pocket.
Praise also belongs to John McNamara whose whip-smart screenplay based on Bruce Cook's 1977 bestseller Dalton Trumbo is also his first for a feature-length film. Extra credit goes to composer Theodore Shapiro, set designs by Cindy Carr, meticulous period costumes by Daniel Orlandi and Mark Ricker's overall production design.
Ultimately, though, this is Cranston's movie. His martini-like Trumbo is stirring (and never shaken).