Trumbo, the latest film from Director Jay Roach, is a biopic of screenwriter and author Dalton Trumbo and features some dynamic performances from a stellar cast. However, does the film as a whole live up to the cast’s hard work?
It is 1947 and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is at the top of his game. However, it is also the early days of the Cold War and the Red Scare is gaining momentum throughout the country, especially in the U.S. Congress. Trumbo, while a proud and successful American, is also a member of the Communist Party and believes in fighting for the working class. His political beliefs draw the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and he is called to testify before Congress along with several other screenwriters and directors. Eventually, ten artists—The Hollywood Ten—are blacklisted, unable to find work. Trumbo is later found in contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison for eleven months. When he gets out, he begins writing both B-Movie and A-List screenplays under pseudonyms, turning his home into a writing factory with his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), and children serving as his drones. He gets into trouble, though, when a couple of his scripts are too good and the hunt is on for who wrote them.
That’s the basic bare bones of the story and it supports an entertaining biopic. However, the film felt—like several biopics these days—like it was a little unfocused, trying to cram as many moments into the film as possible. The sense of time in this one is wonky too. Trumbo seems to be one of the only characters in the film who actually ages and some other age inaccuracies, like that of his daughter Niki (Elle Fanning), are a little incongruous in relation to the actual amount of time passing in the film. It was a bit distracting throughout. The film also feels its length at times, but it was very funny and, for a writer like me, inspiring.
Trumbo’s story is interesting and highly relevant today. During the Cold War, American communists were vilified by everyone simply because their beliefs happened to align with those of America’s enemy at the time—sound familiar? People were afraid and opportunistic politicians took advantage of that fear to push their own agendas. Again, very reminiscent of current events. Was there a danger from communists? Some, yes, but a few in power used that to demonize an entire group of people who were law-abiding citizens. So, Trumbo’s resonance makes it a little more important today than if it had been released just five years ago.
The cast does a fantastic job here with Cranston completely hitting it out of the park as Trumbo. He shows here why he’s one of America’s greatest modern performers. Lane is good as Cleo, but I felt she was underused and a little understated. That may have been how Cleo was in real life, but there were times in the film when Trumbo was at his most tyrannical that I was practically yelling at the screen for Cleo to stand up to him. Fanning does her usual fine work as Niki and John Goodman steals his scenes as Frank King, one of Trumbo’s employers after he’s blacklisted. Stephen Root is hilarious as Goodman’s brother, Hymie. Another scene-stealer is Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird, one of Trumbo’s communist screenwriter allies who suffers greatly from the blacklist. Helen Mirren is absolutely despicable as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, while Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as actor Edward G. Robinson, though I did read that his turn in the film is not entirely accurate from a historical point of view. Finally, there are some good impressionistic performances from David James Elliott and Dean O’Gorman as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas respectively. The cast really makes this film.
Overall, Trumbo is a great display of Bryan Cranston’s talent and an interesting story to boot. Trumbo was quite a character and Cranston brings him to life expertly in a solid, entertaining biopic.