Trumbo

Director: Jay Roach (2016)

Romping through the career of a Hollywood screenwriter, this entertaining biopic suffers from a self-gratifying script filled with too much lightweight sentiment.

Enjoying a privileged lifestyle as one of Hollywood’s elite in 1947, Dalton Trumbo was one of many writers and actors illegally blacklisted for refusing to testify against communists to the US government.

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston stars as the irascible scribe who types in the bathtub with a cigarette holder and glass of whiskey in hand.

Trumbo’s a less than loveable eccentric who patronises the masses who watch his movies and fund his comfortable lifestyle.

A honey throated spinner of yarns who invokes the constitution to serve his own ends, Trumbo reminds us of another historic US public figure given a recent cinematic makeover.

There’s a clear parallel between Cranston’s performance and Daniel Day Lewis’ Oscar winning turn as the ill-fated US President in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2013).

The script even includes a similar moment wherein a colleague refuses to listen to any more of Trumbo’s stories, lest he be converted to his cause.

We fail to sympathise for the champagne communist when he suffers the indignity of downsizing from his country manor to a large house with a pool.

Being aggressively covered in fizzy pop isn’t nice and holidays are interrupted. But a brief and uneventful stint in prison aside, nothing too worrying happens to him.

As an illustration of the rarefied social circles Trumbo moves in, a friend can afford to sell the drawing room Van Gogh to pay for their lawyer’s fees.

Meanwhile Trumbo’s career goes from strength to Oscar-winning strength. Under various pseudonyms he works with Hollywood directors and stars of huge stature.

The timeline covers some forty years giving the handsome film a breathless feel despite it’s stately pace.

Part of the problem is a desire to cram in many era-famous faces. As the story lacks drama, this is possibly to compensate for a suspected deficiency of audience interest.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson is one of several examples of casting capable peformers as famous cinema actors. They’re not as charismatic or talented and physically aren’t great matches.

David James Elliot essays John Wayne as an unconvincingly magnanimous presence.

At least Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas is given a gift of a line which is guaranteed to bring the house down with laughter.

Helen Mirren is terrific as the waspish society columnist Hedda Hopper. But by making her the villain of the piece, the male dominated hierarchies of cinema and politics are let off the hook for their behaviour.

Hopper suffers a poorly articulated rationale for for the intensity of her attacks on communism and there’s no hint her anti-union publisher is any way pulling her editorial strings for their own ends.

Diane Lane plays Trumbo’s wife Cleo with nothing to do except add glamorous scolding and sympathy.

Elle Fanning as their daughter Nikola fairs little better, being ushered down a civil rights movement cul-de-sac.

John Goodman plays to his strengths as a down market producer offering a broad comic performance which recalls his turn in ben Affleck’s Argo (2012).

Never convicted of any criminal charge, Trumbo presents himself as a fearless defender of the first amendment and the script bequeaths him a suspiciously retro-fitted sermon on the importance of the constitution.

There are great lines in the film but one suspects they’re lifted from the scripts or diaries belonging to one of the many scriptwriters portrayed on screen.

3 thoughts on “Trumbo

  1. Interesting take, but I think there might be more to this film. You are welcome to drop in for a read of my review and compare notes. I’ve added you to follow.

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  2. Hi, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I agree Trumbo is a story worth telling but I can’t agree with your assessment of the film as a ‘credible historical artefact’. It’s very much one view of an extraordinarily complex and lengthy cultural period. This film is shameless Hollywood self-aggrandising. My general approach is cinema is first and foremost mass entertainment, if people want educating they should and must, go to a library. I’m with Sam Goldwyn, ‘If you have a message, call western union’.

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  3. Ha…love your response, although I totally disagree. Films are the books of today for masses who absorb culture via entertainment. Sam Goldwyn and his era put entertainment first as that was his vested interest. Today’s film world is far more nuanced and meets a wider range of needs. Thanks for engaging in the debate with such vigour.

    Liked by 1 person

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