Despite being nominated for a slew of awards, Trumbo received very little hype when it was released last year in the United States and earlier this year in the UK. True, Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but the film was overshadowed by a whole variety of other contenders, including the headline-grabbing The Revenant.
Trumbo is based on the true story of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a Hollywood script writer who finds himself blacklisted during the height of the Red Scare, a period where America briefly lost its mind to Communist paranoia in the run up the Cold War. Trumbo is an unashamed Communist and meets with similarly-minded friends (later known as the “Hollywood Ten” of shunned creatives) and he finds himself at odds with the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), refusing to answer their probing questions, not because he has anything to hide, but on sheer principle.
Dalton Trumbo must have been a fascinating man. At the time, he was Hollywood’s highest paid writer but also a vocal Communist, rallying against a system he directly benefited from. However, he’s a smart man with self-awareness of his own perceived hypocrisy, making him a really interesting character study. Bryan Cranston is fantastic. He’s completely in the skin of another character and it’s a brilliant performance in a film full of them. The underrated Diane Lane is strong and assured as Trumbo’s tough-as-nails wife, Cleo. Helen Mirren is on usual great form as acidic columnist Hedda Hopper. Michael Stuhlbarg makes for a great Edward G. Robinson and Louis CK gives an affecting turn as the made-up-for-the-movie Arlen Hird. John Goodman also makes a welcome and funny appearance as Frank King, self-confessed director of crap films.
In the film, Trumbo is accused of talking like his every sentence is going to be chiselled on his grave but it’s not really present in the script. It lacks the energy and crackle of the man himself. Scenes occasionally run too long and the whole thing can be quite uneven. That’s not to say it’s badly written though. There are some great scenes involving the eloquent Trumbo where he delivers wry put-downs and verbal jabs. One of the best moments concerns Trumbo meeting the brash John Wayne (David James Elliot) and neatly dismantling the loud and proud speech The Duke had made moments before. Trumbo even manages to walk away un-pummelled from the whole affair, which must have been a miracle.
The heart of the story is Trumbo and his family suffering through punishment in various guises but never giving up. He’s blacklisted, but still writes because he must. Trumbo writes The Princess and the Peasant, a script he hands over to his friend, Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) to submit as his own work and split the money. McLellan Hunter retitles it “Roman Holiday” and the film becomes a big hit, winning an Oscar that Trumbo can’t collect for himself.
I always think that the mark of whether a biopic works or not comes down to whether the film manages to convey why their chosen subject or subjects had a movie made about them in the first place. Trumbo certainly succeeds there, as Dalton Trumbo was clearly an extraordinary man who did extraordinary things. However, the film often feels rather uncinematic and whilst there are some high stakes, especially involving the well being of his family, they’re not really felt.
Trumbo isn’t the best biopic ever. It can be a little pedestrian and run-of-the-mill at times which can be frustrating. However, it’s a mostly solid, occasionally wonky film that tells the story of a true one-off. The central Cranston performance warrants a look alone, but the film is packed to the rafters with decent actors worthy of your time. Recommended
[rating=3] | Ben Browne
Biography, Drama | USA, 2015 | 15 | Entertainment One | 20th June 2016 (UK) | Dir.Jay Roach | Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Alan Tudyk | Buy:Trumbo