Trumbo, from veteran comedy director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents and Austin Powers series), is based on the true story of the blacklisted screenwriter during an era of anti-Communism. In an academy-award nominated performance, Bryan Cranston portrays the eponymous writer throughout the late 1940s and 1950s during a time when the “Red Scare” permeated Hollywood. Though the film feels overlong due to some meandering subplots, and a few of the characters distract from the overall story, this is a solid historical drama. Cranston is undoubtedly the major attraction, but the overall themes of the story remain poignant to this day.
The plot of Trumbo covers years of the writer’s life, first immediately after World War II while the anti-Communist fervor was mounting, then through his jail sentence and blacklisting, and ultimately to the period where he wrote scripts under various pseudonyms and got them made into great movies like The Brave One and Spartacus (plus some not-so-great ones). Unfortunately, though the film clocks in at just over two hours, it feels more like two-and-a-half, most likely due to a drawn-out and plodding third act that can’t quite decide how the film should cross the finish line. It is poor control over the material that results in a film that is actually half-an-hour too long, but it must be poor editing that makes a film feel half-an-hour too long, and I think that is what happened with Trumbo. Regardless, this is an intriguing story even if it is over-long.
From the opening sequence, Bryan Cranston shines as Dalton Trumbo, and certainly deserved his Oscar nod. He adopts the mannerisms and peccadilloes of the writer and imparts the character with some real dimension, both good and bad. His talent for turns-of-phrase and soap-boxing are wonderful, and one is encouraged to see the world from his perspective quite often. In parallel, the man could be quite a blow-hard iconoclast who took much of his frustration out on his family. Cranston strikes this balance between quixotic intellectual and flawed family man beautifully, and it results in his best piece of work to date (at least, his best not named “Breaking Bad”).
The rest of the actors in Trumbo can be a little hit-or-miss. Louis C.K. plays a Arlen Hird, a screenwriter that is actually an amalgamation of multiple real-life people. He acts as a reasonable intellectual foil to Trumbo as one of the few characters than can actually stand up to him on principles, and also injects a bit of heart into the film. Elle Fanning impresses as Niki, the eldest Trumbo daughter, and I think most of the pathos of the film is derived from her relationship with her father. Like Hird stands up to Dalton intellectually, Niki seems one of the few of the Trumbo clan that actually has the gall to criticize him for his missteps. For what it’s worth, Fanning has palpable talent, and seems poised for a Vikander-like ascendance in the coming months, so keep your eyes open for her next few films (there’s eight of them over the next two years!).
Many of the other supporting characters are also wonderful, from Helen Mirren’s cunty yellow-journalist obsessed with the “Communist Threat” to Alan Tudyk as another blacklisted screenwriter and John Goodman as a trashy film-maker who doesn’t care about whatever bad press he gets from employing Trumbo because, “The people who see [his] movies can’t read”. However, as this is an historical drama, there is significant need to portray many famous individuals (Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, and Edward G. Robinson, to name a few), and some of them just do not work out as well as the others do. Some are just fine, but most of the very-famous ones simply distract the audience and really take you out of the film. Obviously, it is hard to nail every single one of these historical casting choices, but each one they bungle detracts from the overall quality of the film.
Thematically, Trumbo doesn’t really advance the discourse on McCarthyism or the blacklist to any interesting or new place. If it isn’t clear from my philosophical leanings that I have pasted all over this blog, I am about as anti-Communist as possible. That being said, the beauty of rational discourse and freedom of speech is that we allow argument to shape ideas – not force. While it is entirely within the realm of private individuals or companies to decide not to employ Communist writers, it is not okay for the government of the United States to persecute people for their ideas – and that is what the Hollywood Studios sanctioned via a blacklist. Scare-tactics employed by media, businessmen, and government officials rile up the populace and substitute force for a true defense of rational ideals, and in the end we all suffer. Hence, though I would have disagreed with the ideas and politics of Dalton Trumbo, I defend his right to espouse those opinion. It is the coward who substitutes a sword for the pen – or allows others to do so on his behalf.
Trumbo is a solid historical / biographical drama, but has a some issues that stop it from being something special. Still, the message is a wonderful acid test for free speech, and there are astounding performances from top to bottom. Lovers of old Hollywood movies will also find a lot of interesting Easter Eggs throughout, though I venture that many of the casting choices for the famous old actors will rub people the wrong way and stand out as a little awkward. Therefore, though my go-to “McCarthyism is bad” movie is still Good Night, and Good Luck, Jay Roach’s Trumbo is a strong entry that tells another side of the same story.