Movie review: ‘Trumbo’ is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of old Hollywood

What It’s About

In Hollywood, as in fashion, one day you are in, and the next day you are out. In the fascinating biopic “Trumbo,” accomplished screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) learned the hard way just how much standing up for his ideals would cost him.

In 1947, Trumbo was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. A member of The American Communist Party — which meant something quite different before World War II but then the subsequent Red Scare and flat-out hatred of Cold-War Russian rivals made him and sympathizers suspect — his career was crushed.

Persecuted for his political beliefs, he was declared in contempt of Congress and sentenced to federal prison after being investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He served 11 months in 1950.

Being blacklisted by major studios, he was unable to work for years, until brothers Frank and Hymie King (John Goodman and Stephen Root), who ran a B-movie studio, took a chance on him, and he wrote under pseudonyms. During this time, he won two Academy Awards for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One,” but not in his own name.

That changed when Kirk Douglas (an uncanny Dean O’Gorman), who tapped him for “Spartacus,” and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), who was making ‘Exodus,” decided enough was enough, and put his name in the screen credits.

This behind-the-scenes glimpse of how old Hollywood worked is insightful and captivating, buoyed by terrific performers.


Bryan Cranston, Emmy winner for “Breaking Bad” and Tony winner as LBJ in “All the Way,” transforms himself completely into an erudite, eccentric and talented screenwriter and warm, loving husband and father as the titular Trumbo.

He works well with Diane Lane as his supportive wife Cleo, and Elle Fanning as his activist, and somewhat rebellious daughter, Nikola.

Comedian Louie C.K. is spot-on as fellow screenwriter Arlen Hird, a fellow rabble-rouser even ferther left than Trumbo.

The actors playing movie stars are genuinely entertaining, with David James Elliott (“JAG”) a swaggering and pompous John Wayne and Michael Stuhlbarg (“Steve Jobs”) effective as Edward G. Robinson, a former Hollywood Ten supporter who betrays them so he can work.

Classy Helen Mirren goes all in as vicious showbiz columnist Hedda Hopper, whose influence was vast. She wielded the power of her pen as she saw fit, and Mirren practically spits out venom in every one of her scenes.

What Works

The story is engrossing, definitely worthy of a Hollywood ending. The film is enriched considerably by the outstanding cast, and the production team nails the period settings and fashions.

What Doesn’t Work

Director Jay Roach (“Game Changer”) veers into mawkish sentimentality sometimes with family conflicts. But other than that, the film rings true.


3 1/2 stars out of 4

  • DIRECTOR: Jay Roach
  • CAST: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louie C.K., Helen Mirren, David James Elliott, John Goodman, Elle Fanning, and Michael Stuhlbarg
  • Rated R (language, including some sexual references)
  • 124 minutes