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There is so much hot air in Trumbo you could power a fleet of balloons with it. In fact that’s what they do. Every extended utterance is a hot-air speech balloon, rising from characters’ lips in this recreation of true events in anti-communist Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. The film is gritty even so, for all its gab, and bleakly funny at times, for all its sociohistorical horrors.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) really did go to jail. He was one of the “Hollywood 10” condemned by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. “They report directly to Moscow,” fantasised one accuser of the luckless legion who turned left when it was decent to do so — fighting Hitler and fascism — only to be clobbered by the arrival of the cold war counter-current.
Trumbo, while blacklisted, wrote two Oscar-winning scripts (Roman Holiday, The Brave One) using first a friend’s name, then a sobriquet. His family shared the strain of purdah as we see in the movie: suffering wife (Diane Lane) and loyal daughter (Elle Fanning), couriering the high-security scripts to go-betweens.
Maintaining his lifestyle, Trumbo got stick from some cronies for his Beverly Hills bolshevism: “You’re a swimming- pool Soviet.” He was finally rescued from ostracism by Otto Preminger, who ended the blacklist by pinning Trumbo’s name to the credits of Exodus. Kirk Douglas did similar for Spartacus.
Cranston is superb. The Breaking Bad actor, in best form, is an attack dog: he goes at lines like a mutt at a mutton bone. His eyes have a manic, dancing intelligence here, and the voice (we realise from an end-credits newsreel clip of Trumbo speaking) has caught the spry, caustic intonations of the original. No one in the cast is quite his match. Or only Helen Mirren, slumming it with style as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, the ornately hatted witch who led the media witch hunt.