Are you now or have you ever been …

By-the-numbers biopic on blacklisted screenwriter doubles as a history lesson

Opens Friday, Nov. 27. Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren. Directed by Jay Roach. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) was an Oscar-winning screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. He is best known, however, as the most flamboyant figure in the “Hollywood Ten,” the group of screenwriters who were jailed and blacklisted for their various refusals to cooperate with the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee.

Trumbo, written by John McNamara and directed by Jay Roach, is a combination biopic and history lesson, a period piece that recounts events from the time of HUAC, the Hollywood blacklist and its aftermath. Trumbo’s life, professional and otherwise, is very much in the foreground of this chronicle that starts in 1947, with the first wave of HUAC subpoenas, and stretches into the early 1960s, when Trumbo’s pseudonymous script for Spartacus was produced. (Two of his other pseudonymous scripts—Roman Holiday and The Brave Ones—won Oscars in 1953 and 1956, respectively.)

McNamara’s script mixes history and fiction in a story studded with famous names, cameo characterizations and newsreel sound bites. While Joseph McCarthy and Richard M. Nixon appear only in vintage newsreel clips and photos, a host of present-day actors are on hand to portray a good many of the big-name Hollywood figures who were actively involved in this swathe of recent history.

As perhaps it should be, the best of this lot is Bryan Cranston, in the title role. The film portrays Trumbo as a kind of genteel rebel, a family man much invested in the good life, California-style, but also a social activist who truly has the courage of his political and moral convictions. Cranston gives credible life to every dimension of that mildly paradoxical portrait.

McNamara’s script touches on a variety of dramatic hotspots in this bit of American cultural history, but the finished film is, for the most part, little more than a diverting set of sketches. This somewhat lighthearted version of the story reaches a conventionally satisfying conclusion, but its sharpest energies reside almost exclusively in Cranston’s Trumbo and in a wildly uneven array of cameos/caricatures.

The largest of those “cameos” are acting great Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren, in high dudgeon), imperious director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), junk-movie producer Frank King (John Goodman), and big stars John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman).

Stuhlbarg’s stoical Robinson has more gravity and substance than any of the others. Mirren is a delight in an otherwise vicious and excessive caricature. Elliott and O’Gorman do excellent vocal impersonations of their respective movie-star characters.

O’Gorman’s Douglas and Berkel’s Preminger are both very good, full-bodied impersonations, and the two of them, along with Goodman’s King, are among the “secret” heroes within this tale. The latter’s scenes with his brother and business partner (Stephen Root) have a comic-dramatic snap matched here only by the title character’s bursts of wisecracking wisdom.

Trumbo’s wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and oldest daughter (Elle Fanning) shine only in passing. Movie mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) and director Sam Wood (John Getz) deserve harsher treatment than they get here. Louis C.K. is intriguing as the fictional Arlen Hird, one of Trumbo’s beleaguered comrades.