Trumbo should be far more interesting than Jay Roach’s Oscar-bait 2015 film that, despite featuring top performances by all involved, over-extends itself and struggles for cohesion.
Many will describe this film as “Oscar bait” as it ticks many of the boxes. A strong performance from a popular leading man, a politically relevant biopic, a film about Hollywood and making films with an emotional core and a director previously based in comedy films. So whilst the Academy Awards aren’t the marker of all good films why did Trumbo only land a nomination for the leading man Bryan Cranston who was never going to overthrow King Leo’s party? The answer is the film is nothing more than average elevated by an impressive central performance.
The film follows the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the impact his political affiliations have on his family and Hollywood career. The film opens to a turbulent political backdrop as Trumbo’s communist sympathies are at odds with much of Hollywood including Helen Mirren’s glaring professional gossip Hedda Hopper. Facts are bent as in all biopics, but we also see the strange amalgamation of people like Louis CK’s Arlen Hird.
The film races through the Hollywood 10’s incarceration by the House Un-American Activities Committee. It skips through years including a brief but crowd pleasing brush with the Duke (David James Elliot). Years are briefly popped up on the screen and a timeline is difficult to establish until the film finds its rhythm.
The rhythm is discovered almost an hour in once Trumbo is out of prison and is firmly on the Hollywood blacklist. Trumbo works his family like a script producing sweat-shop putting strains on his wife (Diane Lane) and eldest daughter (Elle Fanning). These two are often in danger of stealing the show from Cranston with their heartfelt performances. However Diane Lane strangely does not age as Cranston gathers more and more talcum powder in his hair as the film goes on.
The blacklist period brings the best scenes and characters as Trumbo and his communist crew work for John Goodman’s B-movie production house and his pseudonyms win Oscars. There is also noteworthy turns from Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas and Christian Berkel as director Otto Preminger that are influential in Trumbo’s redemption.
There is plenty to appreciate especially Cranston’s stooped frame and nuanced performance. The family provides the emotional heft as the political and social ramifications outside the Hollywood bubble remain unclear until the epilogue. This is a fascinating and odd part of American history that made me want to learn more. The film made me interested in the subject, but I learnt and appreciated much more after reading around it. Other films such as George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck have examined this period from a very different perspective with much better results.
There is an odd disconnect between the social reality and the Hollywood bubble highlighted by the main character who is told “he acts like a radical but lives like a rich guy”. The financial toil on Trumbo is clear, but without the family aspects it would lack any emotional impact. The director of Austin Powers has produced a well-made film that struggles to find a consistently entertaining tone. This is a film with a great central performance and strong supporting cast in an ultimately disappointing portrayal of a fascinating individual