Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren, Alan Tudyk, Roger Bart, David James Elliott, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Dean O'Gorman, Christian Berkel, Richard Portnow, Stephen Root
MPAA Rating: (for language including some sexual references)
Running Time: 2:04
Release Date: 11/6/15 (limited); 11/13/15 (wider); 11/25/15 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 13, 2015
At this point, we're supposed to discuss what a sorry period the Communist witch-hunting by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph McCarthy was for freedom of speech in this country. There's no argument here, and one imagines there'd be no argument on part of the kind of people who had done the witch-hunting if the political tables were turned (Just recall the wailing and whining performed over the past five years or so in regards to questionable concepts like "liberal media bias" and imaginary ones like the "War on Christmas"). It was a bad time, and the Hollywood blacklist, in which movie studio executives—under pressure by various government officials and industry professionals—refused to hire anyone with suspected ties to the Communist party, was an undeniable symptom of a country diseased by ideological jingoism.
Now that such formalities in regards to sympathizing with the movie's point are out of the way, it is time to just say it: Trumbo has one thing to say, and we've pretty much already covered the extent of it in the previous paragraph. It's a biography of the famed and much-lauded screenwriter whose surname provides the title, but that's really just a matter of convenience.
As portrayed here, the most important times in the life of Dalton Trumbo were the ones in which he railed against the first prominent example of "political correctness" and schemed to undermine the blacklist by having his screenplays produced through the clever use of fronts or the old-fashioned way of pseudonyms. What we learn about Trumbo, the man, is that he was as stubborn in his personal life as he was in his professional one, his political beliefs, and his sense of moral authority over everyone else. That's just a slightly long-winded way of saying that screenwriter John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook's biography) gives us a one-note depiction of his subject.
That serves the movie well, since it is also a one-note screed against the ironically un-American activities of certain folks in Washington, D.C., and Hollywood. Trumbo, as played by Bryan Cranston, is the kind of man we imagine would be intelligent and wise enough to note the absurd humor of this situation, or at least he would be if he weren't so busy with his righteous indignation.
This is a movie filled with loud grandstanding on the part of Trumbo—to members of Congress, to family, to colleagues and friends, to producers and studio executives, to himself while pounding away at a typewriter or scribbling notes while sitting in the bathtub. It ends, unsurprisingly, with a Big Speech that exists in a bubble outside of the story's structure, giving the character a final opportunity to sum up everything he has already summed up time and again throughout the movie. The form of the speech is still grandstanding, but the volume is turned down a few notches.
The story moves from Trumbo's rise to prominence in mid-1940s to his "unfriendly" testimony before the HUAC in 1947 to his year-long imprisonment for contempt of Congress in 1950 to his clandestine return to screenwriting until 1960, by which time his working in spite of the blacklist was an open secret. It looks into his family life with Cleo (Diane Lane), his wife of saintly patience, and his children, who eventually become couriers and secretaries for his unofficial home office. It shows how he isn't as radical in his beliefs as Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), a fellow screenwriter who wants drastic change to the government, or as wishy-washy in his loyalties as Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbard), the actor who, like many others who wanted to keep their careers, names names under pressure.
The most entertaining sections give us a look inside the production company of the King Brothers, Frank and Hymie (John Goodman and Stephen Root), who know they produce crap but don't care because the money is good. The most awkward scenes take us behind the scenes of sinister plots to destroy the lousy commies by the likes of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and the "Duke" himself John Wayne (David James Elliott), who looks like he wants to clock Trumbo after receiving a lecture on the Constitution.
There are lectures aplenty here, and all of them lecture us on the same point. It doesn't help that Trumbo comes across as a man of rigid absolutes, trying to play the hero to avoid coming across as a martyr. A person is either with him or trying to undercut him. That belief extends to his allies and family, too. He's not a particularly sympathetic figure here (A late scene with his eldest daughter, played by Elle Fanning, either tries to correct that or cops out in the portrayal, depending on one's impression), but it's clear that McNamara and director Jay Roach want Trumbo to be an admirable one.
The only admiration the movie wants us to have for him is for his resolute stance, though. Trumbo only cracks the surface of the rest of the man's life, which means we're only allowed to admire him for repeatedly saying the same thing.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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