Jay Roach’s Trumbo casts Bryan Cranston in the real life story of Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter who was instrumental in the end of the Hollywood Blacklist that prevented people from working due to their political beliefs.
It’s a story worth telling as it was a very dark period in Hollywood and America’s history. There have been a lot of depictions of the Cold War and the paranoia that came with it but very few films that focus specifically on the Hollywood angle.
Dalton Trumbo was a Communist and made no apologies for that as he believed in what the party stood for. This film makes a point of promoting the distinction between being a Communist in America and a Communist in the Soviet Union. They were two very different things and belief in a set of ideals didn’t automatically make you a traitor to your country. Unfortunately the government didn’t share that belief and demonised American citizens who identified as Communist.
Since the film is from Trumbo’s perspective everything is very much geared towards putting his point across as the right one and portraying those who demonised him in a negative light. I don’t think many people would claim that the paranoia of the era was something to be proud of and I’m glad that the film took a firm stance on the issue as it allowed Trumbo to be developed as someone we should root for and agree with.
Bryan Cranston does a great job in this film. His performance is very theatrical which matches with how outspoken the real Dalton Trumbo was supposed to be. There’s lots of nuance in his performance and Cranston doesn’t seem afraid to stray into the territory of making Trumbo appear unlikeable. Some of his reactions to being bothered while at work are really harsh and it’s hard to like him in those scenes but Cranston is able to make him deep enough to not make him overall unlikeable. He also brings a lot of intensity to Trumbo when he is arguing for what he believes in. There is absolutely no doubt that he is fully committed to his opinions and is proud of showing it.
The rest of the cast are no slouch either but everyone else comes and goes as they orbit Trumbo when needed. Helen Mirren is very memorable as a brash journalist and Michael Stuhlbarg stands out as a friend of Trumbo’s who was demonised by association. Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk also do their jobs well as friends of his who assist him in various ways.
Special mention should be given to Dean O’Gorman who pulled off a convincing Kirk Douglas. He was especially believable when dressed in the Spartacus gear. Maybe he could appear in a Kirk Douglas biopic. To contrast, David James Elliott was not a good choice to play John Wayne. If the film hadn’t introduced him then I would have had no idea that is who he was supposed to be.
Trumbo tells its story well with the near 100% focus on the title character being a benefit. His proximity to the overall situation and the steps he took to get around it means that focusing on him makes a lot of sense and there’s no suggestion that there might be story elsewhere that we’re missing. I really like how simply the complex politicial issues were handled and everything always came back to the people involved rather than the massive scope associated with the difference in ideologies.
The second half isn’t as tight as the first half with a shift to concentrating on Trumbo writing Spartacus. It makes sense to give that more time as it was the defining point for those involved but I felt that the narrative slowed down too much and the film started to feel long at this point. Another issue is that the passage of time isn’t always clear. At times it clicks midway through a scene that it is supposed to be years after the last one so that lifted me out of the story a little. It’s even more odd that some parts of the film identify themselves by telling you when it is set but others don’t. A clearer and more consistent approach would have made the sliding timeline more effective.
A good story that is well told and well acted. Bryan Cranston brings depth and theatricality to Dalton Trumbo and the film’s tight focus on his life allows the audience access to some really important details. The film does start to drag in the second half and it’s not always clear how much time has passed at given points but it is overall very enjoyable.
• Bryan Cranston’s nuanced and theatrical performance
• the excellent supporting cast
• an easily understood exploration of the political situation
• the slower second half
• a lack of clear indication when time had passed