So often big TV stars struggle to make anything like the same impact in film. Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, The Wire/Luther’s Idris Elba, the entire cast of Friends – they’re A-list award-magnets on the small screen but B-list on the big. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston may have made the jump thanks to a stellar performance in this true Hollywood tale. It’s already won him an Oscar nomination.
Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo, a man not particularly well-known outside movie-nerd circles but responsible for the screenplays for classics like Roman Holiday and Spartacus. His real life was more dramatic than anything he wrote, as he was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s for his communist beliefs. This was in the time when America thought Russian spies were hiding in every shadow. Trumbo served jail time for refusing to give information to the House Un-American Activities Commission, was banned from working for any movie studios and spent years trying to clear his own name and those of his friends. It’s a great big chewy role and Cranston doesn’t waste a morsel, playing Trumbo as an egomaniac but one with his heart in the right place. He’s a hoot.
The fact that it’s a film about a great screenwriter puts a lot of pressure on Trumbo’s script to convey greatness. John McNamara’s screenplay is functional, with some beautiful lines but an A-to-B telling of story and a lot of underdone characters around Trumbo, particularly the ‘villains’ – anyone who is against Trumbo is painted as moustache-twistingly bad. Helen Mirren has some fun with the sweet-then-sour gossip columnist Hedder Hopper, whose obsession with communists here verges on fetishistic. Elsewhere characters are just there to set Trumbo up for a zinger, with little sense that they might exist outside their scenes.
If its telling of the story isn’t subtle it’s still a terrific story, of an entire country swept up in such mass hysteria for so many years and Hollywood, mad at the best of times, descending into complete lunacy. And then there’s Cranston in the midst of it all with a performance of such charismatic zip it should make him a movie star.