Screenwriter biopics are few and far between, and with good reason: they confront the masters on their own turf. Alas, dramatist John McNamara’s tepid account of blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo isn’t worthy of its subject’s accomplishments. Instead it follows the cable-movie template, outwardly hard-boiled but as glancing and starstruck as the passengers on a Hollywood tour bus. That’s unsurprising, since director Jay Roach has lately been one of HBO’s artists in residence (Recount, Game Change).
The highest-paid writer in post–World War II Hollywood, Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) wore his socialist views on his sleeve, branding him subversive in the eyes of demagogue columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren doing Cruella De Vil). Trumbo and other leftist screenwriters (including a composite character played by Louis CK, retaining his trademark mannerisms) are imprisoned for contempt of Congress when they refuse to testify, and later are forced to doctor scripts for quick cash while producing original work under aliases.
Cranston, typically a master of nuance, buries himself under arch affectations (cigarette holder doubling as baton, vocal cadences of a raspy W.C. Fields). Michael Stuhlbarg gives an eloquent turn as a weak-willed Edward G. Robinson, but other portrayals of well-known figures approach the retro caricatures of Roach’s Austin Powers franchise. Ultimately the film is like so many projects that landed in Trumbo’s lap—several rewrites away from working.