Even the actors who set out to tell the story of prolific screenwriter and former Communist Dalton Trumbo weren’t entirely aware of the scope of his story when they signed on to the project. Blacklisted for his beliefs and forced to churn out schlocky scripts under a series of pseudonyms to keep his family fed, he eventually won two Academy Awards he couldn’t collect until the mid ‘70s. His family business—Trumbo’s wife and three children all play key roles in transporting illicit scripts under cover of night—is highly reminiscent of Cranston’s most notorious role on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, and the zippy pacing and editing liken the film to recent gangster dramas more than the typical biopic. Ultimately, the film’s smooth blend of ‘50s and modern sensibilities keep Trumbo both relevant and unfashionably (in the best possible sense) fun.
Telling a serious tale but only taking itself half-seriously, Trumbo focuses on the man behind the Oscar-winning screenplays for films like Roman Holiday and The Brave One, but couldn’t be recognised for his achievements thanks to the state sanctioned witch-hunting that defined the decade. McCarthyism and the House on Un-American Activities Committee make up a dark chapter of US history, yet Trumbo never sinks into obvious worthiness. Writer John McNamara recognises the absurdity of the period, and wrings plenty of genuine laughs out of a situation that most other films would play for sombre drama. The technical prowess in blending historic footage with the present-day cast (particularly in the congressional hearing scenes) draws in the audience, and coalesces with clips of vintage newsreels and crackling announcers used for transitions and to mark the passage of time—all these flourishes add credibility to the formidable world of McCarthyist America.
The film’s greatest strength is its bumbling, sizzling forward momentum, punctuated alternatingly by rousing ideological manifesto and a sharp comedic sensibility. Alan Tudyk (playing writer Ian McLellan Hunter) plays off Cranston’s eccentricities with masterful deadpan while Michael Stuhlbarg (as actor Edward G Robinson) lends the film gravitas by spades when it decides to get serious. Louis CK essentially plays a ‘50s cypher of himself as Trumbo’s fellow blacklist victim Arlen Hird, always grounding the film (and Trumbo himself) if things get too self-important or unnecessarily poetic. That-guy-from-that-one-TV-show staples Stephen Root and Dan Bakkedahl are allowed their moments to shine as well, and if sleazy but honourable studio head Frank King had been played by anyone other than John Goodman, some sort of cinematic law surely would have been broken.
From the very first time we meet him, Dalton Trumbo is a Writer with a capital W, pairing long cigarettes with whiskey while writing in the bath.Though Cranston says he worked hard to toe the line of over-exaggeration, it’s a shame that the film so easily falls to caricature in other areas. A number of scenes between Trumbo and his daughter feel stilted and underwritten, often landing on out-of-place “aw, gee”-isms. It’s a shame, as it means the representation of the women in the film feels iffy, and it wastes the considerable talents of Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife. In addition, Helen Mirren’s “hat for every day” Hedda Hopper might have well been the Wicked Witch of the West Coast, hurling anti-Semitism fireballs just before disappearing in a cloud of red, white and blue smoke. At her side, the ‘patriotic’ right-wingers are reduced to idiot sketches that wouldn’t feel too out of place on The Simpsons. Luckily, scenes involving the HUAC are very funny, and ridiculing the hysterical censors seems the right kind of retroactive revenge.
Commenting on the moral problems posed by ideological censoring makes Trumbo’s story feel grounded and relevant to today, as the nuances of what constitutes ‘free speech’ has become a hot-button topic in modern discourse. But Roach and McNamara avoid the temptation to get too preachy, and never let the Important Message get in the way of being consistently entertaining. Unfortunately, there are a few blotches along the way. Midway through, the film’s cues for marking the passage of time are cut, replacing the effective snips of period news with easily missed subtitles. The film’s make-up and prop departments made this rather redundant—Trumbo’s slowly modernising typewriters and steadily greying moustache marked the passing years adequately. Furthermore, the film’s ending sees Trumbo receiving a lifetime achievement award, and concludes with a speech that seems to betray the energy of the man (and film) who led the charge for the last two hours.
All this said, Trumbo is never boring, and feels a lot like the most enjoyable films of the era in which it’s set. It takes what could be mundane or gruelling (Dalton’s prison stay is knowingly light-hearted instead of being grim) and reshapes it to suit the sensibilities of entertaining storytelling. To the film’s credit, Hollywood’s comparatively minor role in the Red Scare finds an uncharacteristically humble self-characterisation in Trumbo—many other industries suffered far more substantial damages from the era’s discrimination, and the film’s final title card concedes this credit to them. The Hollywood Ten might seem insignificant in the scope of the millions left unemployable, but the film convincingly makes the case that in addition to Dalton Trumbo’s phenomenal writing legacy, his spirit of determined intolerance towards governmental overstep continues to type out truths today.
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara
Starring; Bryan Cranston, Louis CK, Helen Mirren
Runtime: 124 mins
Trumbo is released in the UK on 5 February 2016