Written By Christopher Diggins
Trumbo Plot Summary:
In 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs. Trumbo (directed by Jay Roach) recounts how Dalton used words and wit to win two Academy Awards and expose the absurdity and injustice under the blacklist, which entangled everyone from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) to John Wayne (David James Elliott), Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel).
At this point it’s pretty safe to say that Bryan Cranston is a national treasure. He’s done consistently outstanding work for his entire career, and ever since Breaking Bad he’s been getting all the recognition he deserves for his fantastic turn as Walter White. And while he could have rested on his laurels (and his many Emmys) after the huge success of Breaking Bad, he’s instead been taking on new challenging roles and continuing to captivate audiences (I’m particularly fond of his portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Broadway show All the Way). And in that spirit, we now get to see him portray Hollywood screenwriter and anti-McCarthyism crusader Dalton Trumbo.
Dalton Trumbo was a man who lived a pretty interesting life, so it’s not surprising to see him get the biopic treatment. A rich and famous screenwriter from the 1940’s with communist leanings, he was one of the targets when the House Un-American Activities Committee went after Hollywood. Jailed and blacklisted from ever working again, he nevertheless continued to sell screenplays in secret, with two of his screenplays winning Academy Awards. His efforts eventually helped shatter the blacklist and end that period of political persecution in Hollywood. He’s obviously a pretty fascinating man, and Bryan Cranston jumps into the role with gusto. From skewering his opponents with an acerbic wit, to grand speeches about freedom of speech and the terrors persecution has wrought, to a family life increasingly complicated by his problems, Cranston portrays it all in a perfectly compelling and believable way.
While he does much to buoy the film, Cranston does not carry it all on his shoulders alone. In fact, this might be one of the most stellar casts in recent memory. Louis C.K. as fellow screenwriter and communist radical Arlen Hird proves once again that he has what it takes to succeed on the big screen. Hird is the moral center of the movie, a dedicated crusader in a way that even Trumbo isn’t whose deeply felt passion comes into conflict with Trumbo’s more pragmatic nature. Meanwhile, Elle Fanning plays Trumbo’s daughter Nikola, mixing her admiration for her father with her frustration at his overbearing attitude towards his own family to provide one of the most successfully executed conflicts in the film. To be honest, I could go on like this forever: John Goodman brings sleazy charm to film producer Frank King, Diane Lane is Trumbo’s dependable rock as his wife Cleo, Helen Mirren’s icy civility makes gossip columnist Hedda Hopper perfectly hateable…the list goes on. Suffice it to say that the cast is absolutely outstanding.
Unfortunately, the film is not always able to match the quality of its cast. Like many biopics, it’s not always very good at creating a cohesive narrative throughout the whole runtime. There are lots of scenes, such as when Trumbo is sent to prison for a year for contempt of Congress, that are entertaining and enjoyable, but ultimately add little to the overarching narrative of his struggle. The result is that it often feels more like a series of vignettes from Trumbo’s life rather than one unified story. By choosing to portray all the highlights of Trumbo’s life from 1943 to the early 60’s, Trumbo gains a lot of wonderful scenes, but loses a greater cohesiveness that really could have helped catapult it into true brilliance.
There was a lack of nuance in some aspects of the story that held it back as well. Trumbo himself is presented as a complex figure, giving equal time to his principled stand and his less savory aspects, like his short temper or his lack of total commitment to the values he espoused. But the forces opposed to him are not given the same treatment. The politicians leading the charge on the House Un-American Activities Committee are little more than shadowy figures gleefully indulging in threats and persecution. Their proponents in Hollywood aren’t much better, as John Wayne and Heda Hopper maneuver against Trumbo and his allies for seemingly little reason beyond pure malice. It’s fine to present one side as being in the wrong, but we get little sense of why they act the way they do. There’s the same old rhetoric of protecting America and the soldiers and so on, but as a motivation it rings as hollow to us as it does to Trumbo.
Despite these problems in construction, Trumbo is still an enormously entertaining movie. Getting to see Bryan Cranston trade barbs with studio executives and Congressmen alike, then turn around and give a moving speech is worth the price of admission alone. Factor in all the other outstanding performances, and it’s easy to see that Trumbo is well worth your time. If his movie doesn’t quite reach the kind of brilliance that would put it among the best movies of the year, Dalton Trumbo can at least rest easy knowing that he’s been portrayed by one of the best.