Hollywood loves stories about itself, even when Hollywood behaved poorly and caved to fear and paranoia. Screenwriter and Communist Party member Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s, and Jay Roach’s biopic Trumbo pays tribute to a talented man who stuck to his ideals. However, there’s hardly anything daring or noteworthy about Roach’s take on Trumbo’s story, and although Roach has assembled an outstanding cast, it all feels like everyone involved is on board because they want to do right by Trumbo more than anything else. It’s an “Attaboy” as a motion picture but without letting the audience really sink into any real tragedy. The film struggles to find a dramatic arc by having Trumbo’s crusade devolve into selfishness, but even at his worst, we always know to be on his side. And as Dalton Trumbo would likely point out, just because something is a nice story, that doesn’t make it a good one.
In 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was one Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters. He was also an unabashed communist, which became a problem when Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont) launched an investigation into “Un-American Activities” in Hollywood. Trumbo and his fellow communists stood their ground, and were convicted of contempt of Congress. As the Red Scare raged on in the 1950s, Trumbo tried to find ways to keep writing even though his obsession to claw his way back to the top took a toll on his health and his relationship with family and friends.
Trumbo feels like an apology over something that no one’s even mad about anymore. It’s not timely, and Trumbo isn’t a particularly compelling figure. He’s a rich communist, and while the audience will agree that Congress’ witch hunt is wrong, Trumbo’s fall doesn’t feel like the result of a principled stand as much as a miscalculation because his legal defense rested on the Supreme Court throwing out the conviction. He’s not brave; he’s foolish, and this distinction makes Trumbo look like someone who took bad legal advice rather than a champion of any particular set of ideals. What the film tries to frame as a quest for justice instead comes off like stubbornness, and it’s difficult to sympathize with Trumbo beyond our general disdain of America’s behavior during the red scare.
Roach connects the film to the present in only the broadest sense possible—our notions of fairness and doing right by those we love—and it makes Trumbo feel archaic and esoteric. The movie never goes any deeper than Trumbo’s selfishness and his cartoonish nemeses like Thomas and Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Roach can never seem to focus on whether he wants to make his film about Hollywood during the Red Scare or on Trumbo in particular, and neither comes across as particularly interesting. It’s all reduced to the tale of a persecuted and talented man who basically waited out a storm.
The only consistently compelling aspect of the film is the cast even though most of the characters are thinly drawn. Mirren relishes her one-dimensional villain, Diane Lane plays Trumbo’s supportive wife Cleo, Michael Stuhlbarg is deeply sympathetic as Trumbo’s friend and actor Edward G. Robinson, and I would love to see a spinoff featuring schlock-peddling producers Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie King (Stephen Root), who hired Trumbo when no one else would. Cranston is good in the lead performance, but it feels like he could have done so much more with a more fleshed-out character. At times, it feels like he’s working at cross-purposes with the movie: Roach wants to paint a saint, and Cranston is trying to show a flawed human being. There should be a magnetic personality in between, but Trumbo never finds it.
During Trumbo’s time on the blacklist, he met with Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), who brought with him a monster script for Spartacus. In the film, he tells Trumbo, “There’s a good story in there somewhere,” and the same applies to Roach’s biopic. Somewhere in between Hollywood and Washington crushing civil liberties during the Red Scare, there was probably a good story involving a successful man who lost his place in the world because he stuck to his ideals. But Trumbo plays everything so safe and flat that it feels more like a posthumous award to its namesake rather than a larger story worth telling.
Click here for all of our TIFF 2015 coverage thus far or peruse links to our reviews below:
- 45 Years
- Black Mass
- The Danish Girl
- Green Room
- I Smile Back
- The Iron Giant: Signature Edition
- Kill Your Friends
- The Lobster
- The Martian
- Where to Invade Next