Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Ladd, Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Turyk, Louis C.K., Ellie Fanning, John Goodman
Written by: John McNamara and (based on the book) Bruce Cook
Running Time: 124 mins
Release date: 5th February 2016
Trumbo is a curious movie. Telling the story of one of Hollywood’s best screenwriters during the golden age, who was an instant target for the McCarthy Communist witch hunts, he was an outspoken, impressive man whose life was larger than anything he could have ever written. Yet Jay Roach’s film seems to do him a injustice, even if the lead performance is outstanding.
Dalton Trumbo was the toast of Hollywood in the 1930’s, yet a committed Communist caused him to have many enemies, none more so than gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and all-round American hero, john Wayne. By the time the anti-Communist committee came to power, Trumbo was a big enough name in the industry to be made a scapegoat. Blacklisted and leaving him broke, the effects soon take its toll on his family, although having others fronting for him while he still wrote and finding allies in director Otto Preminger and film star Kirk Douglas could turn his life around.
The anti-Communist period of Hollywood during the 40’s and 50’s was an interesting if bleak time, with many names in the industry taking a fall while others refused to support their fellow artists for fear of being blacklisted themselves. Dalton Trumbo was a writer at the top of his game, yet even he couldn’t escape the clutches of power-hungry politicians out to make a name for themselves. However, Jay Roach’s film just doesn’t seem big enough or brave enough to give a real sense of the menace that affected Tinseltown at that time, or, for that matter, makes Trumbo that grandiose.
In fact, what should have been a fascinating examination of a time of utter turmoil just becomes a run-of-the-mill biopic. It covers the anti-Communist period but you never really get the sense of how it affected those involved. Trumbo didn’t have the same level of power or control he did in his heyday, yet you never feel that he really suffered because of it. It shows him drinking, shows him pulling his family apart but these feel more like snapshots than really insightful.
The sense of period is felt with solid production values and decent costumes, and the film lifts during the period when Trumbo starts working for B-movie mastermind, Frank King, played with plenty of foul-mouthed gusto by John Goodman, but it never feels special enough, as if we’ve seen it all before in other biopics of Hollywood creative types.
Thankfully the performances make the film tick along. Helen Mirren chews up the scenery as Hedda Hopper, while Diane Ladd is perfectly stable as Trumbo’s wife. Louis C.K. gives a fine, non comic performance as fellow writer and blacklister, Arlen Hind. Michael Stuhlbarg is terrific as Edward G. Robinson, one of Trumbo’s closest friends until the pressure is on him, then he comes a coward refusing to take the fall like the others around him.
However, this is a film that belongs to Breaking Bad star Brian Cranston as the eccentric and outspoken writer. His is a finely tuned and detailed performance of a man willing to stand up for his beliefs, even if it could crush him. It’s a strong performance from an actor who seems to go from strength to strength. Compelling and incredibly watchable.
I really wanted to like Trumbo. It’s a time in which Hollywood was at its lowest and the effects were felt on hundreds of artists and actors. Yet you never get that feeling of how lives were really ruined. Even though the performances are strong, the script and pacing isn’t and it lingers along, not really being as captivating as it should. A brave attempt for Roach, known more for his comedies, but dramatically, it lacks punch. Trumbo is a film built upon fits and starts that relies too heavily on its star to carry the weight.