A man fighting bravely against injustice and ignorance, standing up for the common people and socialist values. The story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the red scare that gripped Hollywood post-WWII couldn’t be more timely right now.And as Hollywood loves to tell stories about itself – mythologizing and vilifying its various heroes and villains along the way – Trumbo’s battle against a rising tide of rampant McCarthyism fits that narrative well. But even though Trumbo was a conflicted man, the movie strips away most nuance in favour of a a staccato biopic formula and a wave of cliches, rendering a potentially stirring tale inert.
Bryan Cranston stars as the titular writer, a man who’s riding high on a wave of hits as the movie opens in 1947. As the black cloud and finger-pointing of McCarthyism descends upon Hollywood, the communist-leaning Trumbo becomes a target along with many of his similar-minded colleagues. Eventually they’re jailed (becoming known as “The Hollywood Ten”) and blacklisted from Hollywood as the country leaned ever more right in its politics.
There are wildly different tones at play here, as Trumbo seems to start as a Coen Brothers-esque screwball comedy most closely resembling Barton Fink – the rare film that translated the writing process to the screen with some accuracy. That broadness extends to Cranston’s portrayal, as his Trumbo is an arch figure who swills drinks, clenches a cigarette holder and twirls his moustache.
A man who enjoys the trappings of wealth yet holds communist beliefs, Trumbo is a contradiction of sorts – a point his frenemy Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) makes clear. Yet as real enemies like gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliot) close in, Trumbo takes a stand for his beliefs and rallies his fellow accused communists as they refuse to answer questions in the Supreme Court.
It’s around here that the tonal whiplash takes places as Trumbo careens into some wildly different scenes. Hedda Hopper threatens a studio head with some anti-semitic remarks in a random scene, before claiming that the man had always wanted to sleep with her and then disappearing for much of the rest of the movie. Trumbo’s tearful goodbye to his family rings hollow and then his introduction to prison is overly graphic and at odds with the rest of the movie.
He meets a prickly fellow inmate (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), moments later gaining his trust in a sub-plot that goes nowhere. Later, Trumbo comes across the very congressman that jailed him in prison, and all the movie can think to do is to have the politician say, “Look at us, a couple of jailbirds” before moving on to the next seemingly unrelated scene. Things just happen and we’re given no reason to care.
Most of the movie goes on in this fashion, skipping ahead months and years as the plot sees fit without giving any events meaning or weight. Trumbo is released from prison and now has a strained relationship with his eldest daughter Niki (Elle Fanning) in a sub-plot that gets even more scattered as Niki gets involved in the civil rights movement – a topic that Trumbo touches on briefly as if checking off a box.
Other rote biopic points hit: the lead character’s booze and pill addiction, his fall from grace and eventual redemption (in the form of the script for Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus) and his strained but loving relationship with his wife Cleo (Diane Lane). Lane is giving the utterly thankless task of comprising a performance solely of reaction shots to Trumbo’s outrageousness, generally in the form of: worried-but-hopeful and exasperating-but-loving. Other than blind loyalty and a penchant for hitting a speedbag, the only other trait that Cleo is afforded is that she juggled when she was young. Lane deserves better.
That lack of characterization extends to most other parts as well, even when they’re played by stellar actors. A trio of Coen Brothers alumni liven up the movie, as Michael Stuhlbarg plays famed actor Edward G. Robinson, and John Goodman and Stephen Root play the King Brothers – low-level B-movie purveyors who secretly employ Trumbo at the height of his blacklisting. Robinson is conflicted and humane, while the King Bros. are gleefully amoral – making movies only for the women and the money.
But Trumbo answers to a higher power, a righteousness that would be more dramatically powerful if it ever wavered. But the movie is more interested in lionizing Trumbo than portraying his more contradictory elements. Some of the manoeuvering that Trumbo has to do to keep his identity secret is intriguing and fun, especially as the moral dilemma of bringing his family into the business is setup. But that fails to payoff too.
The movie finally ends past the two-hour mark on a big speech that smacks of unearned sentiment. Cranston has been better and will be again, perhaps on TV where he’s found so much success. Ironically Trumbo has the look of bad network TV – overlit and shot in a pedestrian way. It could’ve benefited from both a more cinematic approach and the touch of a screenwriter as skilled as Dalton Trumbo himself.
Directed by Jay Roach
Runtime: 124 minutes