For Jay Roach’s Trumbo, a fascinating saga falls flat, tripped up by storytelling that both relies on and robs the richness of the source material. Trumbo follows its titular Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), the screenwriter, novelist, and central figure in the anti-Communist blacklisting that proliferated in the 1940s and 1950s. The historical Trumbo was one of the highest paid Hollywood writers of his time and a recipient of one of the early National Book Awards for his 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, before he was swept up as one of the first names on the Hollywood blacklist for his Communist affiliation. Visually harkening toward Mad Men’s period benchmark, the plot trails Cranston’s character from his successful career, through his testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, his brief imprisonment alongside the Hollywood Ten, and his convoluted, clandestine career as a blacklisted writer.
In this story about stars, Trumbo’s cast is also a collection of familiar faces. Diane Lane and Elle Fanning appear, respectively, as Trumbo’s wife and daughter. Hellen Mirren steps in as the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, with large hats and a vicious grudge against our hero, while Louis C.K, and Alan Tudyk co-star as members of the Hollywood Ten. John Goodman and Stephen Root make humorous appearances as the steamrolling producers of the C movies Trumbo ghostwrites.
Trumbo sets out from an easy starting stance: many absorbing stories are knotted up in Trumbo’s biographical circles. Dalton Trumbo, seemingly bottomless font of witticism and scripts, watches his anonymous screenplays win Academy Awards—from his living room sofa. Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) flit around the edges of the Trumbo family’s Christmas celebrations, since Trumbo is forced to work secretively out of his home.
The movie rests too lightly on the fascination of moments like these. Elle Fanning delivers one telltale line that spells out the film’s trouble: in response to the suspicious glance of the family’s aggressively unfriendly neighbor, she remarks how the neighbor isn’t an idiot: he sees Kirk Douglas coming and going from the family’s sunny suburban house. Instantly, both the dramatic value and the humor of that precise, surreal scenario come crashing in around the movie’s ears. We’re told, straight out, rather than shown.
It’s a strain to watch so much potential roll by scene by scene. And it is also all-too-easy to see the filmmakers leaning on the implicit power of their subject matter to give the movie its punch—which never really lands. That kind of passivity in the face of strong material makes the film feel disconnected from the high-tension moment in which it’s meant to immerse us. Instead, the narrative feels historical—Look, there goes John Wayne! In the face of a story about extreme care, craft, and desperation, the off-kilter pacing and monotonous acting—good acting, but monotonous, matching energy and drama point-for-point, scene-by-scene—feel irresponsible, rather than simply clumsy. The movie opportunistically latches onto a story waiting to be told, and told with grit. But Roach delivers this silver-platter dish with a half-hearted drizzle of Oscar-bait honey.
Cranston certainly acts with his usual in-your-face alacrity. He’s everywhere, in nearly every scene, a level, likeable genius. Even in decline, as he slips into boozy hyper-self-centered behavior, churning out anonymous junk screenplays to pay the bills, there’s something unbelievable about his self-isolating rage. His aggression feels not only out of character but out of place—not through any fault of the acting, though, simply out of the character’s weakly plotted development.
It’s this hard-knock crisis of continual, thankless writing where the movie stumbles and doesn’t recover. The movie presents this grinding, painful, surreally star-studded crisis as the third-act climax of the movie. Which frankly, isn’t how it reads. His wife, Cleo, played by Diane Lane, looks into the vanity mirror and says “We made it,” with what I realized only a few beats later was meant to be a dramatic turning point, the signal for a pointed upswing. The monotony erased that sense of struggle, even though it was objectively present on screen.
Few movies spell out their own shortcomings so concretely as Trumbo. Screenwriter John McNamara writes a scene in Trumbo’s home office, with Otto Preminger sitting across the desk and demanding better and better revisions to his script. Cranston delivers a line to the effect that If I make every scene brilliant, you’ll have a very boring movie. Perhaps that was a bit of a Freudian slip on McNamara’s part. Pouring energy whole-hog into every scene, Trumbo itself delivers just such a zambonied result, slick, even, and inscrutable.
But Trumbo is, both historically and dramatically, a story about hard-as-nails American determination in the face of nationalistic American aggression, in an intensely questionable legal atmosphere. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) makes a starring role as villain, its members nepotistic and hypocritical, its famous questioning line (“Are you or have you ever been…?”) delivered with dramatic verve. Its venomous politics and tangled links to anti-Semitism are incarnated neatly in Helen Mirren’s portrayal of the elegant, prominent columnist Hedda Hopper, alongside David James Elliot’s towering John Wayne.
In short, the movie sets itself an easy target, a towering villain of legal and social gravity that tries to prevent the Hollywood Ten from working freely and earning a living—in short, standing in the way of their courageous pursuit of the American Dream. This stark dichotomy becomes increasingly confusing, however, as the film winds down into Trumbo’s closing television interview. Don’t look for an easy villain, says Trumbo, that’s not the moral of the story.
Then what is? The movie itself sets itself a string of easy targets, and the HUAC drama, the questioning, and the imprisonment of political activists is by no means untimely. The film had ample opportunities to complicate its cartoonishly villainous lawmakers and studio executives, conducting what is now popularly regarded as a witch hunt. But rather, we repeatedly see their spirited victims punished and marginalized. And we are encouraged to place the blame squarely with the HUAC, Hedder, Wayne, and the atmosphere of fear for which these entities act as noisy mouthpieces.
The film’s audience is by no means unfamiliar with an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, with easy villains written into the national narrative, with highly publicized, questionable, and often objectionable legal work. It’s difficult to avoid a neat—and unfavorable—parallel with Selma of earlier this year. Where Selma took its easy villains and made them human, if despicable, Hedder and Wayne come across only as portrayals of whole-hearted paranoia. Selma made its points with a heavily personality-driven focus. Though Trumbo begins with a similar set of narrative resources—a historical biographical star played by a very strong actor, with a sterling cast in place to bring his character into focus—Trumbo only makes bold, moralizing point after point. Rather than fully-fledged characters, the movie’s personalities become representative only of their respective viewpoints, which emerge and collide in each successive, ungainly scene. The movie is more interested in tying neat moral knots and name-dropping its celebrity community than in developing its characters to the complexities their story demands.