Bryan Cranston plays a hero of the Hollywood blacklist in a film unequal and unfit to its historical significance.
“The pen is mightier than the sword.” An overused adage, yes, but one can’t help but think of it while watching Trumbo, Jay Roach’s film following the most famous of the Hollywood Ten, the film industry professionals blacklisted during the communist scare of post-World War II America. But the fact that the film conjures up played out inspirational quotation rather speaks to the film’s methods in portraying Dalton Trumbo’s subversive and clever discrediting of the blacklist. This is clearly an important historical tale and Hollywood loves nothing more than it loves stories about itself, but it’s this assumed dignity that ultimately lessens the impact of the film and detracts from the very real significance of what Trumbo accomplished.
Roach has a rather focused directorial collection ranging mostly from comedy (Meet the Parents) to fact-based politicals (Game Change), his interest in wit and politics is clear. In this regard Dalton Trumbo is understandably attractive. John McNamara—known mostly for his TV writing—adapted a script from Bruce Cook’s novel Dalton Trumbo, and maybe it’s because the film takes place over the entire span of the blacklist’s inception in 1947 to its eventual dissolution around 1960 that the film’s pacing does feel a bit episodic in bursts of plot development. Trumbo’s strength lies in Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Dalton Trumbo, his wide mouth and dramatic facial features giving an amount of gravitas to this quick-witted writer.
The film flies, barely giving us a chance to get to know the group that makes up those who are starting to speak out against the wave of conservative nationalism flowing through Hollywood, headed by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Trumbo is at the height of his career and making more than any screenwriter in Hollywood ever has, but his penchant for wearing his political beliefs on his sleeve quickly pushes him into the spotlight. Russia has turned from being a WWII ally to an elusive threat as the beginnings of the Cold War push at the growing paranoia in America. Much of this is shown in newsreel soundbites and meetings held by Trumbo with his colleagues in the industry who also identify as either Communist or liberal. It doesn’t take long for Trumbo and his associates, among them Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) a fellow screenwriter, to be brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee to explain themselves. The now famous Hollywood Ten refused to reveal their personal affiliations and called into the question the constitutionality of such a hearing, as a result several of them went to jail, were fined, and most significantly were fired and/or stigmatized to the point of losing their livelihoods.
The film takes a more dramatic turn when Trumbo serves his time in prison, reflecting on the personal struggle of prison life and that of his family surviving without him back home. Diane Lane plays Cleo, Trumbo’s sweet, supportive and perhaps too tame wife. When he finally comes home from prison almost a year later, it’s Trumbo’s eldest daughter Niki (Elle Fanning) who becomes the film’s other strong character, a contrived decision attempting to better paint Trumbo as both family man and hero. Trumbo enacts a plan that allows him to continue writing—a craft he seems supernaturally good at—and allows him to undermine the blacklist as well. He begins writing for Frank King (John Goodman), a B-movie filmmaker who happily trades Trumbo’s talent for small money, no credit, and a shot to get Trumbo’s movies made. Trumbo begins a sort of screenwriting factory, cranking out originals and doctoring those that need work, enlisting his fellow blacklisters to help. It isn’t long until his pseudonym-written scripts pick up some attention. The man can’t help but be talented.
It would be great to take away from all of this that true talent shines, or right will prevail, or one rock can fell a mighty giant, except that what ultimately allows Trumbo to discredit the blacklist is the combined consciences of several others in the industry who supported him, most notably Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas. So while Trumbo certainly got a sort of revenge on those who imprisoned and blacklisted him, it was the growing evidence that McCarthy’s scare-tactics weren’t leading to any hard evidence of espionage within the film industry. The truth of this doesn’t detract from Trumbo’s role, but ideally the film would have opted for a more humble approach than spotlight the cleverness of its subject.
The film has a distinct lighting scheme and familiar musical mood, very clearly trying to invoke an old Hollywood nostalgia, but mostly working to make the film far too cartoonish. The introduction of historical figures at every point feels like name-dropping and self-congratulatory (no matter how much Dean O’Gorman looks like Kirk Douglas) and the film’s distinct self-love for the industry seems out of place in a story depicting that industry’s darkest hour. At one point in the film Louis C.K.’s Arlen Hird says to Trumbo “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled into a rock?” and this sentiment speaks more to the entire film than anything else muttered.
It’s interesting to note that there will be—and indeed already have been—those who want to remind us that Trumbo’s writing was ripe with socialist messages, as if this proves his complicity in some masterful scheme and marks him as not entirely clean of guilt. Considering the philosophical beginnings of Communism, it hardly seems duplicitous that one would include its main themes in storytelling. If everyone were to feel equally as sensitive to biblical themes in film, there’d be hardly a movie out there that didn’t appear to be propaganda. There may be an amount of historical re-writing, but this hardly seems the film’s worst quality, instead it’s that Trumbo draws a larger picture of its title character than it does the entire tragedy and injustice that propelled him.
Without that level of context Trumbo is reasonably enjoyable, but mostly begs that there be a better film made at least equal to what this Oscar-winning man could have come up with.