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Trumbo Cannily Underscores a Bygone Hollywood

Trumbo may be the mildest R-rated film of the year. Set against a 1950’s backdrop, the film has nary a hint of sexuality nor a drop of blood.

Yet, the film earns its adult rating with gentle profanities, uttered by screenwriters venting an almost polite frustration with a Hollywood blacklist that ruined careers and shattered lives. Fitting that the movie is an homage to one of Hollywood’s finest scribes and most well-known victim of Hollywood’s Cold War communist hunt in Dalton Trumbo, played with understated elegance by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad).

Beautifully acted yet mildly detached, Trumbo is a surprising achievement by director Jay Roach, better known for his over-the-top franchises including Austin Powers and Meet the Parents.

Here, though, Roach does a canny job of capturing post World War II Hollywood, which was brimming with big screen war heroes — and Cold War paranoia. Without feeling outdated, Trumbo feels like a film that could have been made in the mid-50’s.

That’s both the strength and weakness of the film. Trumbo’s real life was so dramatic (he was jailed and won two writing Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave Oneduring the Blacklist, which he collected years later) that it screams for a contemporary, combustible biopic. But in subtle ways, Trumbo’s dated era makes makes seismic statements about Hollywood icons and contemporary issues with Congress.

The film begins when Trumbo is at a career peak, having become the industry’s highest-paid screenwriter with Oscar-winning hits that included Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. But in October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) summoned scores of Hollywood execs to provide names of communist sympathizers. When Trumbo refused, he became the poster child for the Hollywood 10, the blacklisted producers, directors and screenwriters banned from work by the major studio chiefs.

Trumbo has taken its critical knocks for not raking the industry more severely for its cowardice, and when the screenwriter has to move from his lush estate to a comfortable middle class home, it’s hard to muster much emotion for his lot.

But the film makes strong, real-world observations. It paints unlikely heroes and villains: Villains John Wayne (David James Elliott) as a politically expedient waffler and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) as a flag-draped bully columnist, and heroes Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and director Otto Preminger, who bucked the system and gave Trumbo credit for Spartacus and Exodus, respectively. And while the movie is firmly set in the 1950’s, it’s hard to miss the parallels with contemporary films like Zero Dark Thirty, the Osama Bin Laden manhunt film that became a political third rail in 2012.

The performances are uniformly outstanding. Cranston is careful not to overact, and Mirren makes a wonderfully hissable villain. Louis C.K. is a terrific as blacklisted screenwriter Arlen Hird.

While not as compelling or dramatic as Spotlight, it’s fitting that Trumbo and the tale of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church sex scandal open on the same date. Both make unwavering comments on pens out-dueling swords. And both cry the same war chant: That when handled with meticulous care, from punctuation to premise, the word matters. Period.