Directed by: Jay Roach.
Written by: John McNamara based on the book by Bruce Cook.
Starring: Bryan Cranston (Dalton Trumbo), Diane Lane (Cleo Trumbo), Louis C.K. (Arlen Hird), Michael Stuhlbarg (Edward G. Robinson), Helen Mirren (Hedda Hopper), David James Elliott (John Wayne), James DuMont (J. Parnell Thomas), Alan Tudyk (Ian McLellan Hunter), Dan Bakkedahl (Roy Brewer), Richard Portnow (Louis B. Mayer), Roger Bart (Buddy Ross), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Virgil Brooks), Elle Fanning (Niki Trumbo), John Goodman (Frank King), Stephen Root (Hymie King), Dean O'Gorman (Kirk Douglas), Christian Berkel (Otto Preminger).
Hollywood loves to mythologize itself – which is why it’s odd that they have yet to make a truly great film about the Hollywood Blacklist. Martin Ritt’s The Front (1977) probably comes closest, and Irwin Winkler’s Guilty by Suspicion (1991) is pretty good. George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck is about McCarthyism to be sure, but not really about Hollywood in particular. Jay Roach’s Trumbo is the latest film on the subject that seems to barely scratch the surface of one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history. It should be better than it is – it’s got an excellent ensemble cast, a screenplay full of snappy dialogue, and workmanlike, but effective, direction by Roach. But the film falls into the trap that many films on the subject does – and make a complicated situation look simplistic, and ends up painting complex, real people as caricatures. The result is often entertaining, but ultimately fails to live up to how good it should have been.
The film stars the great Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo – famed screenwriter, who was once the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, not to mention a National Book Award Winner for his novel Johnny Got His Gun. But in the late 1940s and early 1950s, America was gripped with Red Panic – and Congress started to hold hearings to flush out Commies in all walks of life – especially in Hollywood. Trumbo was, it should be said, a one time member of the Communist Party – and was a long-time advocate for workers’ rights. So Congress wasn’t wrong to accuse him – and others in the so called Hollywood Ten – of being Communists. Of course, that shouldn’t matter – in America you have the right to believe whatever the hell you want. But that didn’t matter at the time – and Trumbo found himself blacklisted, unable to work – and spending a year in jail for Contempt of Congress. He never stopped working though – he just couldn’t put his name on any of his screenplays, and made a living for years churning out cheap screenplays under false names. During that time, his work won two Oscars – but he couldn’t claim either.
Through his stint on Breaking Bad, Cranston proved himself a master of nuance – but that’s not something that is required of him in Trumbo. Cranston effects a strange speaking style, and seems to be hiding behind his posture, mustache and cigarette holder throughout the film. That’s not to say he’s bad in the movie – he’s actually quite good, and always entertaining. But Trumbo was a more complicated person than he is portrayed as here – and the movie never asks him to be complicated. That’s extends to everyone else in the film as well. Yes, it’s fun to see John Goodman and Stephan Root as the King Brothers – makers of schlock, or Helen Mirren as her hats as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper or Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger (an opportunity is lost that the film doesn’t show us Stanley Kubrick at all – it mentions him once, but it essentially gives all credit to Spartacus to Kirk Douglas). The best performance in the film is probably by Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson – an initially jovial figure, who becomes quietly sad and tragic throughout the film.
Yet, it’s also undeniable that the film doesn’t look for nuance in any of its characters. The anti-communist forces in Congress are painted as one big, faceless, interchangeable mob. While Mirren is fun as Hopper, the film doesn’t really give her much to do (its more than they give two other talented actress – Diane Lane and Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s wife and daughter, but not much). For a film that is about the Blacklist – where Congress and their lapdogs painted everyone they didn’t like with the same brush, and didn’t worry about context, or even truth, Trumbo is odd in that it perhaps overcorrects things – doing the same thing in reverse.
To be fair, Trumbo is quite a bit of fun at times, and is never boring. Roach, who is best known for his big screen comedies, has been trying to move into more serious work – doing some fine films (like Game Change) for HBO. Trumbo in many ways feels like a TV movie – and not one of the best ones, but rather just a decent, workmanlike one. It’s a fun movie that would give those who know nothing about the blacklist a decent primer. But we’ll have to wait a little longer to have a great Blacklist movie – and Trumbo feels like a missed opportunity to be that film.