By: Muneeb Arshid
Jay Roach’s newest film tells the story of the Hollywood Ten, those screenwriters that were banned after World War II for being affiliated with the Communist Party. Among those ten, and many others who were persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and their various “laws” was one Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston). Trumbo focuses on Dalton Trumbo’s life, his family, his work, his associations with Communism and how he and other fellow writers got around the discriminatory system that was ultimately banishing them from living and making their livelihoods.
Trumbo is a film that takes on a very classic biopic style by following a rigid timescale, where the story jumps from one major point to another in Trumbo’s life. However, the overall structure of the film follows how Trumbo was a vocal leader of the reform in Hollywood for equal pay and how he then is investigated and sent to jail. And from there, how he recovers and is still able to make a living even when there is heavy scrutiny around him from the more “American” peoples of society. Dalton Trumbo would be the writer of Oscar Winning screenplays like Roman Holiday (1953), and The Brave One (1956), both of which he was not initially recognized and presented the Oscar because he was not technically allowed to be working because of his blacklisted name. But what Trumbo shows is that, even though he may have been writing these wonderful screenplays under a pseudonym, he was never angry at the Academy or Hollywood in general for not being able to accept the Oscar with his own name. There are instances where even though the general public with whom he would have interactions would react negatively to his presence, he was always a man that believed that America was the greatest country in the world and that there was just a difference of opinion. He continued to find a way to work around the obstacles thrown his way, and believed that things would be alright.
Where Trumbo Succeeds, is in the character study and the interplay between the relationships of not only Trumbo and his affiliates, but others around him as well. Along with the characters, the second aspect that works wonderfully is the depiction of the politics that showed how persecuted the men and women of Hollywood, and specifically those of the Communist Party, were, but also showing that if talented people in Hollywood could have their careers ruined, why wouldn’t it affect the general Communist society outside of LA. And the movie is not afraid to portray some of the biggest names of Hollywood and really showing off what their personal stance was on either side. You have the likes of Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) who are as “Murican” as can be and are not afraid to show the disdain for Trumbo and his troupe because of their affiliation. Opposing them, there’s Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and most notably Frank King (John Goodman) who couldn’t give a hoot about Trumbo and his choices and just wanted to make “great” movies based on great screenplays written by the greatest screenwriter of that period. Oh, and the way that the characters are portrayed can be seen as either very comedic or they are really acting their asses off. Both Mirren and Elliott portray their characters in a way that screams “Academy, here we are, look at us acting here. Vote for us, now!”
There are, however, two performances that work extremely well, one by Bryan Cranston playing the titular Trumbo and the other by Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird. Cranston’s performance may be called an actor’s performance as well, however, it is very nuanced where the specific motions, and walking stance and the way Trumbo speaks, is very precise and shows the quality and versatility of Cranston himself, being able to move from a comedic character as Hal in Malcolm in the Middle or as Walter White in that little show about distributing blue candy, Breaking Bad. And with Louis C.K., it’s not like he’s a revelation on the big screen since we’ve seen a great performance from him in American Hustle, but it’s nice to see him be consistent in his more “serious” roles, even though, in those serious roles, he tends to have the more comedic moments, he really does know how to act his dramatic side of his palate.
But, it’s not all rosy and perfect with how Trumbo works. While there may not have been problems with Trumbo’s screenplays for many of his great films, this biopic about him, does have a few problems. They’re all centered on the narrative with issues with the pacing of the film itself. The first act of the film is very fast paced, with the narrative set around the political aspects of the characters, and their intentions and sets up how the movie is going to deal with the Hollywood Ten. You see the confrontations in the courts and Congress hearings and then the reaction from the public, and this film seems like it’s going to be a rollicking affair. But once the movie moves to Trumbo’s ranch, the pace really slows down and starts focusing on how the family members are having to deal with Trumbo’s decisions and the consequences that they are dealing with. Again, the kids, and Trumbo’s wife Cleo (Diane Lane) act in a heartfelt way, and you understand the pain that they are going through. But it is very clear that they are acting their way through it, whereas performances should have a natural feel to them.
However, the relationship between Trumbo and daughter Niki (Elle Fanning) showed the problems that many families were dealing with at that time. Where a single member of the family was a part of the Communist party and the rest of the family had nothing to do with them. But for the public, that didn’t matter, They would persecute anyone that was related or even acquainted to a Communist member of the family. And for Niki, it really boils over, especially when after Trumbo comes back from prison, he sort of becomes an introvert from the universe and puts himself into his work, but ends up becoming a horrible person to everyone around him. And it’s his relationship with his older daughter, who makes it be heard that Trumbo has now turned into a really crappy father, which ultimately brings him around to the loving father he was once.
Ultimately, Trumbo had a lot of potential to be a great movie with a standout performance from Bryan Cranston and a top of the line first act. However, after Trumbo is released from prison, the film really falls apart, not necessarily because of the story, but because of its length, and the inability to have a tight plot. However, it’s not a movie that will bore you; it’s not a movie that will feel like a drag; it’s a movie that has a very serious message that must be seen with an underlying focus of just how badly the rest of America was treating some of its citizens. But if all you want is a pretty good historical representation which is fun to watch, if not for Hedda Hopper herself, then this is a pretty good matinee film to catch at your local indie theater.
Unlike Trumbo’s Oscar-winning screenplays, Trumbo, the sort of, kind of biopic gets an above average grade of B- (7.1/10)