There is much to admire in Trumbo. The new biographical drama about the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten” has the assured direction of Jay Roach, a typically-brilliant performance from Bryan Cranston, and avoids the self-congratulatory smugness that plagues most films about persecuted liberals. It’s bizarre, then, that Trumbo never quite sparks to life. The lack of sanctimony oddly undermines the story’s rabblerousing energy, reducing this wannabe emotional powerhouse to a slick history lesson. Still, it’s a history lesson worth learning, and Cranston is a far more entertaining teacher than anyone you’ll find on campus.
When American screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) refused to testify before Congress about his involvement with the Communist Party, he effectively pulled the plug on his Hollywood career back in 1947. Trumbo, along with his 9 co-defendants (known as the Hollywood Ten), are convicted of contempt, sent to prison, and become universally reviled by a country embroiled in a Cold War with the Soviets. He and his family, including wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning), flee their comfortable Hollywood existence in favor of the paranoid suburbs; strangers in a strange land, indeed.
Yet, Trumbo refuses to yield to the blacklisting imposed by studio hotshots terrified of being implicated in the “red scare.” He resolves to beat them at their own game; to keep writing under pseudonyms on the outskirts of the Hollywood system. In fact, his most famous alter ego, Robert Rich, actually won the Academy Award for screenwriting in 1956 for the The Brave One. After the famously-temperamental director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) publically acknowledges Trumbo as the writer for his 1960 feature, Exodus, the blacklist is symbolically toppled.
What makes Dalton Trumbo such a fascinating figure is that he isn’t your typical ideologue. As fellow conspirator Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) astutely observes, “You talk like a radical and live like a rich guy.” Trumbo was a “swimming pool Soviet” who craved wealth and recognition just as much as he championed equality and worker’s rights. You can hear the ironic echoes of Cranston’s Breaking Bad persona, Heisenberg, each time Trumbo bemoans the sacrifices he must make for his family’s survival. Like Heisenberg, Trumbo’s family becomes a convenient rationalization for affluence and acknowledgement.
This focus on Trumbo’s contradictions keeps John McNamara’s script (based on the biography by Bruce Alexander Cook) from ever becoming self-righteous. When Trumbo is dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he rebuffs their inquisition with aristocratic taunts, not ideological grandstanding. Fueled by a cocktail of cigarettes and amphetamines, he fights his battles while writing in a bathtub rather than inciting an angry mob in the streets. Director Roach keeps his camera firmly fixed on Trumbo, focusing more on the man than the man’s mission.
Unfortunately, this inward focus makes for a strangely detached viewing experience. Most of the HUAC fervor and constitutional wrangling takes place, quite literally, in the past. Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) and his editor, Alan Baumgarten, weave Trumbo and a rogue’s gallery of shrill villains into black-and-white “newsreel” footage. While the technical achievement is seamless and impressive, it only serves to distance us from the dramatic thrust of the story. Trumbo’s fortunes are largely dictated off-screen, by characters we barely see who foster motivations only slightly more nuanced than a propaganda comic strip. In other words, we watch the interesting stuff on television rather than experiencing it on a cinematic scale.
The villain of Trumbo is an idea, which, despite its worthiness, is far less compelling than a human target. Actress turned gossip-maven Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) turns up periodically to stir the pot, but she’s far from the centralized demon this story needs to raise any hackles. It’s not enough for our hero to win the virtuous fight; he must illuminate the wretched villain as they scurry for the cover of darkness. Congressmen bellow into microphones and desperate actors like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) scheme to maintain their opulent lifestyle, but none of it carries much emotional grit. It looks great and everyone is doing terrific work, but Trumbo feels clinical and cold.
Trumbo’s personal life is also less than provocative. Cleo, for all her strength and determination, is still a prototypical ‘40s housewife. She exists solely to support her man; buttressing him against Communist baiting from outsiders, as well as the wrath of Trumbo’s young daughter, who has the audacity to question her absentee father’s judgement. Brief moments of turmoil bubble to the surface and then dissipate like a fart in Trumbo’s bathtub. This approach might have worked had Roach and McNamara buried the family dynamics deep in the background. Unfortunately, their eagerness to focus on these lightweight conflicts creates an emotional black hole at the center of Trumbo. As such, this is just the story of a stubborn but brilliant man embroiled in a messy job dispute. The sense of scope and urgency never translates across the decades, despite the issues of patriotism and xenophobia being more relevant than ever.
On the bright side, stellar performances punctuate Trumbo. In particular, Louis C.K. continues to distinguish himself as a versatile actor. Even going toe-to-toe with a heavyweight like Cranston, Louis more than holds his own. John Goodman is also terrific as one of the infamous King Brothers; the maverick schlock producers who thumbed their noses at the Hollywood blacklist (albeit using pseudonyms for their writers). Obviously, this is Cranston’s show. He inhabits the screen like few character actors working today; moving effortlessly between droll sarcasm and wholesale sincerity. There is nothing he can’t play.
Trumbo is one of those curious movies that falls short of its aspirations despite keeping you entertained. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, as you reach the intended destination, albeit stuck in second gear. Given the issues it’s tackling and the artistry on display, however, it shouldn’t feel this slight.