Given the time of year, audiences are expecting studios to release their best films of the year. Now is the time when everyone starts to keep an eye out for the next big film to surround with Oscar buzz. Trumbo may be framing itself as the typical contender for those top awards, and it very well may be in contention, but tonally, it is a bit off and it lacks the height of performances that we expect.
Trumbo is a biopic telling the story of Dalton Trumbo’s (Bryan Cranston) fight against the Hollywood blacklist. Trumbo was a steadily working screenwriter in post-war California. A former soldier, which is briefly referenced in the film by showing photos on Trumbo’s study walls with him in uniform, he aligns himself politically with the Communist party. This was back when America fought alongside Russia to defeat Germany, and when the American worker had been one of our greatest wartime resources. Trumbo’s beliefs in worker’s rights and sharing resources lands him and a group of constituents in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He stands his ground, as do his friends, as they believe they can win their case by appeal in the Supreme Court. They can’t, and Trumbo goes to federal jail for two years. When he returns he is squarely on Hollywood’s black list and cannot work under his own name at all. This is when the film really starts to get going.
If all of this seems rushed, this is matched by the rushed feeling in the pace of the film up to now. All of this story is presented through exposition and nearly concise scenes to convey the story up to Trumbo’s release. The real story of the film is what happens after he is released, and far too much time is given to the precursor. Because of this lopsided editing, the second half of the film feels slightly abridged too, which is unfortunate because it is the much more exciting part of Trumbo’s story.
Bryan Cranston does a great job leading us through Trumbo’s later years as a cocky but very talented screenwriter. Trumbo is forced to write under pen names or to recruit other non-blacklisted writers to take the credit for his scripts, so that he can keep working and keep supporting his family. Though Cranston does have many solid and pivotal scenes in Trumbo, the fact that it is all a performance never quite disappears. Trumbo is always with some sort of prop (cigarette holder, bird, to name a couple) and his reliance on these props to build out his personification of Trumbo also serve as a reminder that he is just acting. Having seen Cranston completely disappear into his performances in the past, this struck me as a disappointment against my very high bar. Alongside that we have David James Elliott’s John Wayne. His approach is over the top, resulting in plenty of unintended laughter at his expense, but it does beg the question if it is possible to play The Duke with any degree of subtlety. Wayne himself was a bit of a cartoon, after all.
To that point, the inclusion of many players from Hollywood’s royalty is one of the most satisfying points of Trumbo. Seeing Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), Spartacus-era Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) on screen together carries a lot of mileage in terms of nostalgia. Though those were dark days for free expression in America, we still produced some beautiful films and stars back then. Preminger sparring with the smug Trumbo, and the high waist banded Douglas strutting around makes up for a lot of Trumbo’s ills.
Trumbo the man is quick witted and very funny, and both traits are on full display throughout the film. His sense of humor is delightful, but stops the film from ever becoming a serious drama. His sometimes rocky relationship with daughter Niki (Elle Fanning) feels shoehorned into the bumbling tale of the charismatic Trumbo pulling one over on the small minded studios of the era.
Hollywood’s blacklist is one of the darkest marks on the wonderful cinematic history of America. It seems a bit odd to me to treat it with a bit more levity than I was expecting. Perhaps Trumbo himself would have wanted it that way. The film tribute to Trumbo is entertaining, swiftly moving, and just as witty as the man himself.
Director: Jay Roach
David James Elliott
Film Length: 124 minutes
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Distributor: Bleecker Street