Directed by Jay Roach.
Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Goodman, Louis C.K, Alan Tudyk, David James Elliott, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Sean Bridgers, and Helen Mirren.
In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.
Not to steal what director Jay Roach admitted during a special Q&A in Chicago regarding what he wished the tagline for Trumbo was, but what would you do if your ability to work and support loved ones were wrongfully snatched from you due to having a set of political beliefs and principles that don’t line up with the masses? You could stick to your guns and fight the system, risking everything you have honestly earned, or simply sell out those beliefs for easier living.
Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) falls somewhere in the middle. After having his name placed on the Hollywood blacklist and serving jail time for adhering to socialist beliefs during the Cold War, a time when tension between America and the Soviet Union was high, he decides he is going to poke the hornet’s nest back until achieving victory and his name back. The results are an extremely complex persona of a man wholly driven to not be defined by systemic pressure (overworking himself under different screenwriting pen names), who also unfortunately begins to neglect what should be most important to him, family.
This character study naturally works with Bryan Cranston portraying the real life historical figure; he’s not only an amazing actor, but in many ways looks and sounds like the real Dalton Trumbo, as evident by some of the archival footage during the ending credits. Trumbo has the raspy voice of a chain-smoker, numerous medical problems that keep him on different drugs and alcohol to numb the pain as he freely writes scripts naked in his bathtub, and a sharp intellectual mind full of witticisms and hilarious comebacks to anyone attempting to keep him down. Most of this is also captured from unique cinematic angles that allow the wacky mannerisms and facial expressions of Trumbo to come alive.
The humor of Trumbo as a film is something that is certainly unexpected, but a welcome shift in formula to the standard biopic. Too much of the writing and direction feels like your standard paint-by-numbers biopic that is more interested in starting from point A and jumping through time to points B, C, D, and so on and so forth until the history lesson is complete. This decision does hurt the film to a degree, as there are many different time periods that feel as if they could have used some more exploration into the moment rather than being glossed over.
For example, it feels as if Trumbo returns home from prison just after he is unceremoniously tossed in. He reads one letter to his family from the can and shares one or two engaging scenes with an African-American cellmate, before we are thrust into the next phase of his whirlwind of a life. It’s possible that there isn’t much else to say, but there are numerous scenarios like this making the film come across as uncertain as what to actually hone in on. The best biopics tend to focus on one small fraction of an event in great detail to accurately say something about the key figures involved, whereas Trumbo is often like flipping through chapters of a school textbook.
Once again though, this is all mitigated by the fact that the film is really funny. It’s not just Bryan Cranston that gets to deliver the laughs either, as well-known comedic actors such as Louis C.K, John Goodman, and more also get to steal some scenes. Louis C.K in particular plays a composite character of sorts to Trumbo, and makes for a worthwhile addition to helping understand his conscience. Meanwhile, John Goodman plays a temperamental film studio executive more interested in quantity over quality with some rather cheesy sounding films, and has a ridiculously amusing scene where he destroys his own office with a baseball bat while threatening a union leader.
There is also quite a bit of fun in seeing real-life actors being portrayed by youngsters in the industry (Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson), plus some intriguing perspectives are gained on them from looking at their associations with Trumbo. The family dynamic excels thanks to Diane Lane and Elle Fanning, among others portraying loved ones of Trumbo, while Helen Mirren plays the writer of a gossip magazine that influences much of Hollywood’s decisions, perfectly portraying a cruel woman of irrational hatred. As I’ve written this review I think I may have talked myself into believing that next to Spotlight, Trumbo has the best ensemble cast of 2015.
Even during the moments where Trumbo occasionally drags or stumbles into bland, formulaic genre standards, entertainment is at least always somewhere around the corner with this impressive gathering of actors and characters. It goes without saying though that Bryan Cranston is the leader of the pack that ties the film together, and is deserving of an Oscar nomination. He is a truly gifted actor capable of superbly blending the comedy and drama into a singular tone that doesn’t skip a beat.
Trumbo successfully catches viewers interest into this unsavory period of Hollywood filmmaking, making you want to research the situation more, whether it is by the book that the screenplay is adapted from, various other documentaries, or investigating online. It’s also a film with much social relevance right now, at a time where it feels like people from all walks of life, religions, race, ethnicities, and what have you all want to silence each other for thinking differently, it’s a poignant reminder that the world thrives on people containing differing viewpoints. A little debate never hurt anyone, and that First Amendment protects your right to believe in whatever you want to believe in.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook