Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); February 5th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Drama
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren
Trumbo is about two things: the trials and tribulations of a successful screenwriter, and the cultural acceptance of an uncommon political discourse. We spend time examining both, but never truly get into the meaty centre of either. Said screenwriter is Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a creative caught up in a battle of black-and-white politics; it’s us versus them and US versus Russia. “The Blacklist was a time of evil,” he bemoans, and it probably was. Fighting against tonally light content, we don’t see that evil.
It is mid-20th century America and Hollywood has been torn in two, ambiguous grey areas nowhere to be seen (certainly not in this filmic incarnation). There are those with ties to Communism and ideals driven by wealth distribution, none more so than the aforementioned Trumbo. Then there are the others — studio heads, directors, actors — who bear defiant patriotism, unwavering in their hatred for the Communist agenda. The turbulent ripples become clear, crossing the personal-professional divide almost instantly: “[Trumbo is] among us. Sure as hell ain’t one of us,” says one director, and he ain’t referring to movie guilds.
Director Jay Roach employs newsreels that lambast Communism by throwing the words “radical” and “anti-democratic” around. Trumbo himself, though grouchier as the film wears on, is a beacon of idealism: the imaginative writer, accepting, and willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those on the other side of the fence. When he’s not doing that, Trumbo is storytelling — we see him awaken in a bathtub and pick up his pen as if he hadn’t stopped for a snooze break. He ponders thoughts before his typewriter, smoke clouding his headspace, evoking a sense of artistic megalomania. Cranston plays him well, naturally manoeuvring between cartoonish cheer and patchy introversion.
The movie moves with welcome momentum, but there is a lack of bite in each narrative stroke. That the rabble of screenwriters charged with Communist associations are, at worst, fairly wealthy white males ought to be more of an issue given the film’s discriminatory context, but that is only brushed over during a brief conversation between Trumbo and fellow writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) — the civil rights movement becomes a meagre agent of friction between father and daughter, forgotten after a heart-to-heart. In fairness, unfair haranguing by Supreme Court magistrates does show us how little progress we have made in terms of political jousting and partisan stubbornness.
You would think the criminalisation of the Hollywood Ten (as the writers are collectively known) would have a creative impact on the film industry, but we don’t really see any immediate consequences. Irrespective of politics, incarceration means a loss of talent and that loss is skimmed over even after Trumbo and co. are released from prison and subsequently blacklisted. The workaround is fairly obvious: sell one’s work under somebody else’s name. Trumbo does just that, penning and then passing on the critically acclaimed Roman Holiday (1953) to his untainted screenwriter pal Ian McLellan Hunter (a typically effective Alan Tudyk).
It’s when he decides to work with B movie studio exec Frank King (John Goodman) as a script curator that we see some sort of occupational impact — these films are shoddy, far from Trumbo’s intellectual norm. As King puts it, “Quality minimum; quantity maximum”. Goodman’s arrival ushers in a Coen touch, a bout of heightened satire and craziness, and probably the film’s best moments too (a baseball-bat-wielding Goodman is a sight to behold). This stuff is enjoyable, though you do get the sense the filmmakers are too caught up in moulding an accessible film to carve out something significant.
What this means for the characters, and Trumbo especially, is a lack of piercing emotional rigour during moments of plight. Forced to strip off all of his clothes, Trumbo’s entry into jail is clearly demeaning and disheartening, however it should be tinged with so much more emotional verve. But up until that point there is no gravitas urging you to sympathetically invest in the scribe. Trumbo’s only emotional ties are those the film does not really have to earn: to his family, including daughter (Elle Fanning) and wife Cleo. Fanning shows spark and in spite of her fairly thankless role — wife and mother — Diane Lane manages to imbue Cleo with a dose of likeability.
Helen Mirren channels her inner Rita Skeeter as Hedda Hopper, the media’s harshest Communist critic. “Bad box office? No, bad politics,” she says, more concerned with political allegiance than money which, given her job relies on a thriving Hollywood, is quite something. John Wayne is arguably her biggest ally from within the industry, played here with brutish aplomb by David James Elliot. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, other big anti-Communist thinkers such as Joseph McCarthy are tiptoed around, Roach opting instead to focus on Hollywood figures.
On the aesthetic face, lots of high-waisted trousers and charcoal fedoras help to amplify the time period. Pathé-esque newscasts look real — some are, such as one depicting a John F. Kennedy film critique (two thumbs up) — while Roach’s use of newspaper prints to relay the national agenda is a nifty touch. These visual styles culminate in a retro flavour that generates more authenticity; it’s no Carol, but it’s good. Vowels are even offloaded with deeper verve. Cranston’s Trumbo sounds like someone who once resided in one of those old, grainy video recordings from many decades past.
Screenwriter John McNamara has a lot to juggle content-wise so perhaps the hit-and-miss nature of Trumbo shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) arrive without warning as the film reaches its scattergraph finale, name-checking Kubrick and negotiating screen credits. The film is essentially a trivial overview of a much more interesting period in US and Hollywood history than is given credit. But Trumbo is wholly watchable and Cranston commendably holds the screen, amounting to a piece worth its papery weight in entertainment.
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