You sense the film industry still hasn’t forgiven itself for the Hollywood blacklist. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the studios shut out dozens of professionals who dared to lean leftwards in a country infected with paranoid psychoses about the red menace.
The writers had it easier than most. They could, at least, hide behind pseudonyms and use "fronts" – helpful colleagues who passed on the fees – to represent them at functions. The most famous of those men was the charismatic, eccentric Dalton Trumbo. For 10 years, the screenwriter was forced to write classics such as Roman Holiday and Gun Crazy under assumed names. He hammered out gutsy pulp for minor studios. Eventually, thanks to the stubborn courage of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, his credits appeared on Spartacus and Exodus.
A small portion of the debt is repaid in a biopic that veers from the pedestrian to the ludicrous to the indecently entertaining. At its worst, Trumbo plays to the same patronising rules as the sort of low-rent cable biopic that asks us to believe Matthew Perry might be Clark Gable. (Don't get any ideas, Lifetime TV.) At its best, it suggests the silly fizz of Hollywood as reinterpreted in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
What we don’t get is any convincing investigation of Trumbo’s politics. Inhabited by the always-welcome Bryan Cranston, this version of the writer (who joined the Communist Party as late as 1943) comes across as a democratic socialist in the mode of Bernie Sanders.
There’s a gutlessness to the approach that suggests the mainstream is still not quite comfortable with the red meat of radical politics.
As the film begins, Trumbo is living the high life with a lovely family on a rural estate by a sparkling lake. The clouds are gathering, but they have not yet darkened. Notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) are starting to make noises. The House UnAmerican Affairs Committee eventually comes together and demands that Trumbo and his colleagues testify. He becomes one of 10 who famously refuse to recognise the proceedings and find themselves propelled into the professional shadows.
The shape of the story is well known and John McNamara’s script makes no attempt to discover novel structures or fresh flavours. How odd that a film about a screenwriter contains so little you could call writing. Instead we get a series of linked sketches on the theme of Hollywood’s great mid-century breakdown.
Cranston has fun with the role, but he struggles with the more flamboyant flourishes of Trumbo’s personality. Always at home with honest toil, the actor convinces us that this sort of pressure really could grind a man down. Cranston is, however, not the sort of actor who can drink a martini in the bath without looking slightly uncomfortable.
A host of good sports stroll by to deliver cameos of varying potency. Elle Fanning is genuinely touching as Trumbo’s daughter Nikola, one of the few people who can halt his amphetamine rush. Dean O’Gorman is hilarious as a breathtakingly healthy Kirk Douglas – formed from a muscular inverted triangle appended on a stallion’s front legs. Michael Stuhlbarg brings out Edward G Robinson’s terrible conflicted state.
Then there’s Helen Mirren. It is probably against the law to be in any way unkind about the former Ms Mironoff, but her turn as Hopper is uncharacteristically frightful. Cackling like a twin-set Cruella Deville, simmering like Joan Crawford as Lady Macbeth, she makes no effort to soften a villain whose lines play as if written for a Gaiety pantomime.
“I’ll get you Trumbo! Just you wait!” she doesn’t actually scream in the last line, but she may as well have done.