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'Trumbo' (R)

Bryan Cranston turns in a wise, ferocious, at times hilarious performance in the title role in Trumbo, a superbly cast biographical film smart enough to see that Hollywood history is American history and that the post-World War II Communist witch hunt, when the House Un-American Activities Committee destroyed the careers and lives of many, is a fascinating piece of Americana.

Dalton Trumbo (Cranston), the screenwriter of such films as Roman Holiday and Spartacus, was one of them, and the film, directed by veteran comedy filmmaker Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) and scripted by John McNamara, adapting the 1977 book by Bruce Cook, mixes all the period sturm und drang with wit and humor. It also makes it clear that Trumbo’s professional undoing may have been his personal salvation and forged a greater soul.

When Trumbo, the “swimming pool Soviet” and “highest-paid writer in the world,” if not the bathtub, is called before the committee, he is blacklisted along with the other “Hollywood Ten” and forced to serve prison time for contempt of Congress, a phrase some might find depressingly laughable today.

Trumbo deftly combines archival footage with fictionalized scenes, featuring such Hollywood icons as actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), who sells a Van Gogh from his famous impressionist collection to help his beleaguered friends, Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), depicted here as the Evil Queen of Hollywood Anti-Commies, right-winger John Wayne (a terrific David James Elliott, JAG) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), who helped destroy the “black list” by hiring Trumbo to write Spartacus.

As Trumbo’s loyal and sexy wife Cleo, Diane Lane makes it clear how much the artist owed to his wife. John Goodman is marvelous as the B-movie maker who hires Trumbo and his ilk to write for him for peanuts using pseudonyms. As the fictionalized Arlen Hird, Louis C.K. is, like the film, a pleasant surprise. German actor Christian Berkel almost steals the movie as comically dour Otto Preminger.

Trumbo blunders in giving Hopper a vile speech that was in fact given at a famous meeting of the Directors Guild by Cecil B. DeMille. But if you love Hollywood and (mostly correct) Hollywood history, you must see Trumbo.

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Stephen Root, Michael Stuhlbarg.

Director: Jay Roach.

Screenwriter: John McNamara. Based on the book by Bruce Cook.

A Bleecker Street release. Running time: 124 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual references. Playing at: area theaters.