“The blacklist is alive and well, and so is the black market.”
Out of the key societal institutions, one would think that art and Hollywood would at least be more tolerable than most with regards to personal beliefs. Not so, at least in the 40’s and 50’s. In the year 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is undoubtedly the movie industry’s top writer, his scripts worth their weight in gold for studios.
His success doesn’t quiet or suppress his beliefs, though. During a time in which Communist paranoia is at a peak, Trumbo doesn’t shy away from the fact that his ideals, and those ideals of his companions, are communist ones. Believing that their movies are being tainted by Communist propaganda, Dalton and others are ostracized by Hollywood for their beliefs, and blacklisted from ever working in show biz again. But with a little ingenuity, Trumbo and friends may be able to prove that Hollywood is, for lack of a better word, just dumb.
Grab a mental image of what the typical November/December (aka Oscar season) biopic looks like, and I’d wager that it looks a little like Trumbo. That’s not a damning statement; Trumbo is a solid film that gives what seems to be—for the most part—a knowledgeable retelling of Dalton Trumbo’s mid-1940’s and 50’s life during a time in America’s history where Red Party fear was rampant. Is it likely to be remembered? Doubtful.
Trumbo the man was a compelling character, and writers John McNamara, Bruce Cook, and director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers series), appear to know that. While what made him compelling is the fact that he was willing to stand up for an ideology that always has carried an extremely negative sentiment, he’s still shown to be a smart, loving, and family man, an American with an un-American political siding. And yet at the same time, he’s shown to be possibly a little selfish in his war against Hollywood for the wrong reasons. Though the results of his war on both his family and “Hollywood 10” friends are decidedly predictable, his unique character allows Trumbo the movie to be more than just a what-is-Communism type movie.
But, the movie does really fall short in delivering a high level of emotional impact. A prolonged prison scene in particular which is supposed to be sad, appears to only exist in the movie for Trumbo to reference a line later for a cheap laugh. Perhaps it is due to Trumbo sometimes being drama, and sometimes comedy. It is not a jarring shift in tone, because Dalton’s wit is established early, but the humor can be considered undercutting to the film’s emotional core. The story doesn’t jump around a ton, but does so a little more often than desired, if only because in these moments it feels like some parts were removed for whatever reason.
Is Bryan Cranston ever not a highlight of a film or television show? His Dalton Trumbo is a tough role, dependent on a look and character in an era that could resemble a bad play instead of a feature film. Cranston may not be completely flawless, as it just calls for a lot of mannerisms, makeup, and smoking, but he never makes Trumbo to be a joke. He’s without a doubt the strongest aspect. Surely to be underrated work, Diane Lane and Elle Fanning provide the story with the few emotional beats that work. Ever a model of consistency, John Goodman shines with his few scenes in the film.
Unfortunately, some of the cast is weaker than others. Louie CK does play one of Trumbo’s closest allies and confidantes, but he feels more out of place in this feature than say, American Hustle, where playing a version of himself wasn’t that bad. And while Helen Mirren has received acclaim for her turn as the Bourgeoisie gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, it’s more caricature than anything of substance.
Not as strong as the Oscar-winning scripts he wrote, Trumbo is a nevertheless a good (maybe slightly forgettable) biopic that can be uneven here and there, but is overall an intriguing real story supported with a sound lead performance.
Photo credits go to blogs.wsj.com, cinemablend.com, and ew.com.
Follow the Movie Man @MovieManJackson