Bryan Cranston has obviously had a career-defining role in Breaking Bad, and this, his first leading-man role since that series, was a good choice. It has both dramatic and comedic elements, which definitely plays to his strengths as a performer.
The film is based on the story of Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was Hollywood’s most famous blacklisted person, an open Communist and one of the “Hollywood 10”: ten screenwriters or directors who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to name names to House Un-American Activities Committee. As author of the American Book Award-winning anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun (and director of the film adaptation in 1971), Trumbo was one of the most high-profile targets of the investigation. The film covers his trial and the time he spent in prison, as well as his subsequent work as a pseudonymous writer of mostly B-movies and film noir.
The last section covers his writing of Spartacus—for which he was finally credited, regaining his position as a top Hollywood writer and beginning the decline of the blacklist system. Trumbo won two Academy Awards while writing under other names, for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956).
Trumbo is directed by Jay Roach, who is best known for the Austin Powers series but he has also done political drama like Recount as well, making him a less surprising choice for Trumbo than might otherwise be apparent. It’s a very well-paced film, enjoyable and breezy, while still telling an important story from relatively recent history that many people are still unaware of. His cast includes a number of actors known for working with the Coen Brothers, and actors with much experience in comic roles (such as John Goodman as producer Frank King, and comedian Louis C.K.), who bring great timing to their dramatic parts. In Cranston he has an actor who can fill both roles well.
Helen Mirran as the horrible gossip columnist Hedda Hopper shows how the political side of the blacklist was wrapped up with the Hollywood publicity machine. All of the actors tasked with playing well-known actors do a creditable job, including David James Elliot as the fervently anti-Communist John Wayne, Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas and Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson.
Trumbo, not unlike another Cranston film appeared in from a few years ago, Argo, is a political film with a sense of humour about the ridiculous situation the characters are in. This helps it convey its message without becoming ponderous. The performances also help carry the film, and I would be surprised if Cranston doesn’t get an Oscar nomination.