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Non-Review Review: Trumbo

Trumbo is a solid (and fairly formulaic) Hollywood biopic elevated by a powerful central performance from Bryan Cranston.

In many respects, Trumbo is a very familiar story. It is a film produced by Hollywood about Hollywood, which offers a broadly positive portrayal of the industry and a vital chapter of its social history. As the title implies, Trumbo focuses upon the life and times of Dalton Trumbo; Trumbo was a famous writer branded a communist as part of the “Hollywood Ten”, sent to prison and excommunicated from the industry. It is a tragic and shameful chapter in the history of Hollywood, one that leaves scars still felt today.

Testify!

Testify!

The plot beats of Trumbo are familiar enough to anybody with an appreciation of the biopic formula. Trumbo is an eccentric idealist who endures terrible hardships (and yet imposes them upon his family) in pursuit of a laudable goal. There are a few nods to the idea that Dalton Trumbo is manipulative and self-serving, but the film never makes a particularly compelling case for its central character as anything more than careless. Trumbo runs through all the scenes and elements one expects from a story like this; from the quirky details to the domestic drama.

There is something very rote and familiar about all this; a movie about a screenwriting genius that lacks any of the energy or verve that its central character brought to his own work. However, while the film doesn’t necessarily work in a “big picture” sense, it is held together by the finer details. Cranston offers a wonderful central performance that towers over the rest of the film, and the movie offsets some of its more formulaic plotting with a tendency towards witty banter and wry one-liners. Trumbo doesn’t have the right stuff, but it has almost enough of the write stuff.

A little bird told me...

A little bird told me…

Trumbo aspires towards relevance and import. After all, it is a weighty film directed by Jay Roach. While Roach is undoubtedly associated with comedies like Austin Powers or Meet the Parents, Trumbo is very clearly a spiritual successor to his HBO films Recount and Gamechanger. Roach has demonstrated an interest in political cinema, and Trumbo feels like the next logical evolution in that style. (In fact, it is not too hard to imagine Trumbo as a television film, which is true of a lot of its fellow Oscar contenders.)

The House Unamerican Activities Committee casts a long shadow over twentieth- (and twenty-first-) century America. In some respects, the Communist witch-hunts of the fifties represent an original sin in the wake of the Second World War. The traditional narrative of the Second World War is that it was the good war fought to preserve democratic values against fascism; it is consciously (and repeatedly) invoked in Trumbo as such. There is an irony in the steps taken to erode those democratic values in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

Otto pilot...

Otto pilot…

The witch-hunts represent an anxiety about the stability and security of American democracy, with their unpleasant implication that freedom of speech and association are secondary to the security of the state. (Many Western democratic powers have similar anxieties expressed in their own ways through their own cultural history.) There are any number of parallels that might be drawn with any chapter in American history. The story of citizens’ rights eroded by paranoia and uncertainty resonates on a very basic level.

At the same time, there are moments when Trumbo feels a little dated. There are parallels that might be drawn between the witch-hunts and the recent revelations about wire-tapping and surveillance, and Trumbo alludes to them. One of the film’s recurring ideas is how accepting a horrific status quo is its own form of complicity, how it is entirely possible to recognise the horror of what is happening while still enabling it further. However, there is a sense that Trumbo is less relevant at this point in American history than it would have been a decade earlier.

Write on...

Write on…

After all, the awkward relationship between media complicity and government abuse of power arguably reach its zenith in the earliest days of the War on Terror, when it occasionally felt like journalists were cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; when the response to 9/11 drowned out any criticism or discussion in favour of idealistic (and well-intentioned) patriotism. In fact, Dalton Trumbo speaks to that idea repeatedly over the course of Trumbo. The film repeatedly suggests that fear is a powerful motivator.

In some respects, Trumbo feels of a piece with Jay Roach’s work on Recount and Gamechanger. Those two films are notable for how they effectively bookended the Bush administration; Recount looked at the ascent to office, while Gamechanger examined the landscape left in his wake. Trumbo feels very much like a film positioned between the two extremes, an allegorical exploration of a cultural moment in American history. Of course, that moment has not faded entirely from view, but Trumbo might have resonated more if it had landed a decade earlier.

Taking a bath on this script...

Taking a bath on this script…

There are other issues with the film as well. Trumbo is a very broad and ambitious film, covering a huge swathe of the title character’s working life. Trumbo spans from the earliest days of the witch-hunt through to its subject’s eventual vindication. Given everything that happened in between, there is a lot of ground to cover. As a result, certain moments are reduced to a list of bullet points; certain characters seem half-formed or underdeveloped, certain threads unexplored or glossed over.

Helen Mirren is largely underdeveloped as Hedda Hopper, the former studio star turned professional gossip monger. The film struggles to get a read on Hopper, to explain why she does what she does beyond simple hatred. Is Hopper resentful of the industry that chewed her up and spit her out? Is Hopper genuinely concerned about her son’s service in the armed forces? Are the factors more complex or nuanced? The film never really offers an answer; the most satisfying possibility is faintly suggested in the film’s final shot of Hopper, juxtaposed against a magazine cover.

Gossip-mongering...

Gossip-mongering…

Similarly, the drama within the Trumbo family feels stock and made to order. Elle Fanning and Diane Lane offer solid performances, but their characters frequently feel like cynical attempts to humanise the central character. Trumbo is a movie that is already cluttered enough in its attempts to chart a history of the blacklist through the career of Dalton Trumbo, so heaping domestic conflict on top of all that overburdens the script. It does not get enough room to grow, and it squeezes out other more interesting threads.

Despite these issues, Trumbo frequently works quite well on a scene-to-scene basis. While John McNamara’s script struggles to find a compelling way to tell its central story, it does find warmth and wit in its smaller character interactions. Often, small exchanges feel more weighty and consequential than the larger arc of the film, with the script’s wry wit lightening the mood whenever it seems like Trumbo might lose itself in its earnestness. There are memorable sequences and moments in Trumbo, even if they rarely seem to add up to much.

The film even comes with a nice post-script.

The film even comes with a nice post-script.

Bryan Cranston anchors the film with his portrayal of the central character. While the script is a little too broad and scattershot to afford the actor his best material, Cranston is game for everything. Mastering the shift between sincere and comedic, Cranston often makes Dalton Trumbo seem more tangible and grounded than the script would suggest. A single glance from Cranston communicates as much as an extended dialogue sequence about the current state of the Trumbo family unit.

Cranston is ably supported by a fine supporting cast. While the more prominent female co-stars often seem short-changed in the their roles, Roach works better with the male members of the ensemble. It helps that none of the male characters have roles large enough to clutter the narrative or distract from the plot. Instead, performers like Louis C.K., John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg and Adam Tudyk make the most of relative small roles with manner turns; imbuing even quiet scenes with added weight.

Listless...

Listless…

Still, there is a sense that Trumbo is a little overly reverent towards its own Hollywood history. Classic film scenes are lovingly recreated. When Dean O’Gorman appears as Kirk Douglas, Roach tends to shoot him from lower angles as if to emphasise his iconic status. Even the lowly King Brothers are presented in an affectionate way. Trumbo has a very idealistic view of the film industry and the way it works, consciously downplaying the industry’s complicity in the blacklist era.

Trumbo is surprisingly sympathetic to the people inside the industry who collaborated with the House Unamerican Activities Committee; Edward G. Robinson gets his say, Louis B. Mayer is blackmailed into cooperating through the threat of antisemitism, and even John Wayne is portrayed as a man of some small integrity. In contrast, Trumbo eagerly lays into the outsiders; it reserves little sympathy for Hedda Hopper, presenting her as a true traitor to the industry, nor does it characterise any of its political baddies beyond greedy and power-hungry.

He just ain't that type (of) writer...

He just ain’t that type (of) writer…

Trumbo is a fairly predictable and generic story, albeit one elevated by moments of wit and a charismatic central performance.

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4 Responses

  1. Yes. I thought BRYAN CRANSTON and DIANE LANE were superb and helped elevate the movie. Great acting by seasoned pros.

  2. Cranston’s surprisingly very good here, even if he does seem like he’s doing a parody of the guy. The movie’s fine, too, if feeling a tad bit like an HBO special. Nice review.

    • You’re right about the HBO thing. Like a few of the Best Picture nominees, it does feel like it was a TV movie that somehow secured a theatrical release.

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