Oscar season naturally bring us the inspirational true story about how one person or a small collection of people overcame great hardship and ridicule to achieve a great victory of the human spirit. This year, we’ve already had this with Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and to a lesser extent Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant. Trumbo is another example and has already gained several nominations, but it goes further in its celebration of the pure universal power of movies as well as legitimising the Oscars as a kind of progressive force for change. Which might prove problematic given the discussion surrounding diversity around the 88th Academy awards.
It sounds as if I am off to a cynical start, but don’t worry I can assure you that I really did enjoy Trumbo from start to finish and anyone possessing an appreciation of old time movies or the power of movies, or even the great awesome power of words in general, will find a lot to like.
In the late 1940s, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is already celebrated as one of Hollywood’s most prolific screenwriters. At the height of McCarthyism during the 40s, his membership with the communist party turns him into a subject of suspicion. Along with 9 other writers, Trumbo is blacklisted from working with all the major Hollywood studios over fears of him colluding with the Soviet union and warping the mindsets of the American people through the liberal arts. Facing imprisonment and rising public anger, Trumbo has no option to write screenplays for the lowest common bidder under a different pseudo name. However, being as talented as he is, Trumbo soon pens some of his most greatest works, including Roman Holiday, the Brave One and Sparticus, to name just a few.
Bryan Cranston looks good with a smoking pipe as Trumbo himself. He has the accent and the wit to pull off what you’d expect from a celebrated screenwriter. There is enough warmth to keep him cosy despite the lingering presence of Walter White. The movie doesn’t look to depict Trumbo as some inaccessible artistic genius and portrays Trumbo as more of a workhorse, writing all hours of the day, between his office and bathtub, cranking out the screenplays some of which turn out to be bonafide classics.
The real dramatic weight of the movie comes from Trumbo’s relationship with his family. Diane Lane plays his wife, whilst Elle Fanning his eldest daughter, which both grow to become voices of conscience as societal pressures test the family unit to unparalleled levels. The movie earnestly attempts to go to darker places, with Trumbo hopped on pills that make him irritable. There is nothing sadder than a naked man having an angry rant in a bathtub during his daughter’s 16th birthday.
Trumbo is kept mainly light however. The wit and wisdom of Trumbo always comes shining through, even his incarceration in prison feels relatively brief. The film’s prejudices in this age of cold war paranoia feel so quaint through modern times. McCarthyism was largely a farce and the film does play into this, even though there were many who did have their lives after being blacklisted after communist suspicions.
The world today is not without the paranoid ideals and dividing effects of ‘us vs them’ that defined McCarthyism, but Trumbo does feel all too quaint on this subject. The biggest tragedy is that it makes Dalton Trumbo’s family life a living hell and he doesn’t get the pleasure of accepting his many academy awards in the flesh. With many of these kinds of movies depicting true stories of human preservation in the face of persecution, Trumbo is best enjoyed with your cynicism left at the door.
Sweetening the price of admission further is a supporting cast of famous faces playing famous faces. Helen Mirren plays Hollywood gossip columnist and anti-communist shit stirrer Hedda Hopper, who exists mainly as a caricature appearing in each scene wearing a different hat threatening to expose dirt on our heroes. It does feel a little below the capabilities of an actress of Mirren’s stature, one scene reminiscing the time in which a Hollywood exec took advantage of her when she was a young actress feels a little wrote given the one noted bigotry she provides the movie.
Elsewhere you have John Goodman as Frank King, the owner of the B-movie studio Trumbo is forced to work for under a pseudonym. Goodman essentially plays a short tempered studio exec with no interest in creating any work of any artistic credibility and more interested in selling crap that makes money.
Along with Trumbo’s blacklisted band of screenwriters is Alan Tudyk as Ian McLellan Hunter and Louis CK as Arlen Hird, a fictional character made for the movie, which does go someway to delegitimise the movie’s truth. Hird is treated as a scrappy screenwriter beneath Trumbo who is slowly dying of cancer as the screenwriters attempt to regain their reputation from the fickle government. It’s a lazy fictional addition.
Elsewhere you have the appearence of several actors playing big name actors of the day. David James Elliot does a pretty spot on impersonation of John Wayne who is largely treated as a diehard republican buffoon. Dean O’Gorman plays Kirk Douglas, the movies saviour, the man who believes Trumbo is the only screenwriter who can write Spartacus. Christian Perkel plays director Otto Preminger, who essentially sits over Trumbo as he writes Exodus over Christmas, mostly for comedic effect (“Christmas is over”).
In the end, Trumbo is a candy coated biopic about the universal power of movies and the great creative geniuses behind them. Unfortunately, it is a bit too simplistic in it’s treatment of McCarthyism and communism and takes a large degree of poetic license with its plot points, bending the truth of the events that actually happened during the 50s/60s.
What saves the movie, is the script’s errant wittiness, providing a stream of great quotes that need to be committed to memory. A large dependable cast are elevated by two great central performances from Bryan Cranston and Elle Fanning. It’s not really about McCarthyism, it’s about the family unit and how whilst it can strive to be unified, great outside social pressures can tear them apart.
Barton Fink (1991)
One of the greatest Coen brothers movies is about a writer who travels to Hollywood to write works of great art but is forced to write utter garbage. Not unlike what happens in Trumbo.
Hail Caesar (2016)
I’m probably cheating here, choosing another Coen brothers movie, but seeing as it deals with similar themes during the time Hollywood was suspected of churning out communist propaganda. It makes for a great double bill with Trumbo.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
A black and white movie directed by George Clooney about CBS defying financial ruin to take down Joseph McCarthy in 1953.
This 1959 interview, in which Dalton Trumbo admitted to writing The Brave One.
Witness my brilliance! I made it through this review without quoting Breaking Bad!