To this day, the Hollywood Blacklist is one of the most embarrassing chapters in the industry’s history. Few would argue that anyone felt that embarrassment worse than screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and fewer still worked harder to overcome it. Based on the biography by Bruce Cook, Jay Roach’s biopic finds Trumbo at a moral crossroads, forced to choose between his strongly held beliefs and his unwavering desire to write. Trumbo is a film blatantly engineered to win Oscars and — in an odd twist on my feelings about the recent Suffragette — is far more engaging as a lesson in Hollywood politics than as a bona fide character piece.
The film opens in 1947, as we meet Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) joining with other screenwriters and actors like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) in campaigning for citizens’ rights against the House Un-American Activities Committee. Soon, Trumbo is brought before the committee, where he and the rest of the so-called Hollywood Ten refuse to admit any Communist affiliations or name any names, adamant that it’s their right as Americans to believe what they please. After his release from prison, Trumbo finds himself blacklisted, thanks in no small part to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). To make ends meet, he takes a job as a script doctor for schlock producer Frank King (John Goodman), which leads to Trumbo secretly writing dozens of scripts under a litany of pseudonyms.
It’s hard to pin down a conventional narrative in this film, because John McNamara’s screenplay covers so much ground. It seems to find Trumbo bouncing from one confrontation to another, painting him as a man relentless in his quest to write the best stories he can while also putting food on his family’s table. The man had an incredible work ethic, and that conviction threatens to be his undoing. One of the story’s late developments sees Trumbo turning his family and their home into a script factory, cutting and pasting scenes together in the bathtub and turning his children into secretaries and couriers. This strains his relationships with his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and oldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning), but these conflicts can’t help but feel forced. There’s no question how hard this must have been on his family, but their inclusion feels like the film suddenly noticing how hard it might be lionizing its subject.
Bryan Cranston puts in a fun performance as the prolific writer, a constant smirk behind his thick, curled up mustache, with a cigarette always in hand. His never-ending pontificating and grandiose sentiment seem ironic coming from a man of little physical action. Several key moments play out in the bathtub or behind a typewriter. Trumbo’s best work is on the page, and likewise, Cranston is at his best when he’s obsessively composing during a nice, long soak. That said, the man we spend two hours with is quite a bit removed from the man we see in archive footage during the end credits. There, we see an interview with the real Dalton Trumbo, who explains why his daughters deserve all the credit for helping him keep his pen names a secret. This Trumbo, the real Trumbo, suddenly makes Cranston’s take look kind of ridiculous.
The same could be said of many of the film’s other performances. Michael Stuhlbarg does fine work as Edward G. Robinson (I’d even argue he’s better than Cranston), but elsewhere the celebrities we meet feel more like caricatures than actual performances. Dean O’Gorman, for example, doesn’t exactly resemble Kirk Douglas in the first place, but he at least puts on a decent impersonation. Christian Berkel plays German director Otto Preminger’s overbearing persona thoroughly as a goof. Meanwhile, David James Elliot feels so completely wrong as John Wayne that people keep addressing him as Duke just to remind us who he’s supposed to be. Maybe this is simply director Jay Roach’s background in comedy coming to the fore, but it’s an approach that never clicks with the tone of the story.
There are other characters that don’t feel quite right, but more for their inclusion than their performance. Louis CK plays a screenwriter named Arlen Hird; he’s one of the Hollywood Ten sent to prison along with Trumbo. Louis CK is fine in the role, but Arlen Hird is a character purely invented for this film. He’s written as a foil to Trumbo, telling him how hypocritical he is for talking like a radical but still living like a rich guy. Surely someone in Trumbo’s circle actually felt this way. It somehow feels wrong to tell the story of the Hollywood Ten, then replace some of them with fictional characters. If there’s any subject Hollywood loves above all others, it’s Hollywood. Why not shine a light and give at least a little recognition where it’s due? (The answer is in the title of the film.)
At Trumbo’s heart, though, is a lesson we would do well not to overlook. Characters call for Communists to be rounded up and placed in internment camps; Joseph McCarthy demands names and identities of people with Communist ties; left-leaning individuals are demonized simply for thinking differently. All of the Red Scare business depicted in this film calls to mind modern Islamophobia, and people like Donald Trump proposing the mandatory registration of American Muslims. The point is clear: We’re teetering on the brink of repeating some very ugly history, and if we can’t at least learn to respect another man’s point of view, how can we even live with ourselves?
Trumbo makes some salient points, but never quite manages to live up to its titular figure’s way with words. It’s an essential piece of Hollywood history, but you may find you’ll get more out of watching Roman Holiday and Spartacus, then maybe reading through Trumbo’s biography. Bryan Cranston is angling hard for an Oscar with his performance here, no question. He definitely makes a case for a seat at the table, but he can’t save a film that ultimately feels half-baked.Liked This? Share It!