If you’re a hard-boiled film buff, you’ve probably heard of Dalton Trumbo. He’s the screenwriter behind some of most famous films like Roman Holiday, Exodus and Spartacus. You also probably know that he was at one point the highest paid movie writer in the industry. What you probably wouldn’t know is that he was embroiled in communism and was blacklisted by Hollywood, after which he wrote a bunch of films under a pseudonym, some of which won a few Oscars.
Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach is a biopic of the enigmatic yet flawed genius, and it works fairly well for those who dig movies and have a cursory knowledge of America’s witch hunt of communists post WW2. The film opens just after the Second World War has ended, and the Congress has begun raising cain about communism on home turf. The film then introduces us to Trumbo’s work and his journey towards being blacklisted along with his peers, and how some fought back, and some didn’t.
The problem with the movie is that the only really powerful element is Bryan Cranston playing Trumbo. His performance is magnetic but everything around him seems kind of superfluous and rote. It feels as if the story is going through the motions of a biopic, rather than turning into a compelling drama.
Ultimately this is a film about Trumbo facing hell because he chose the communist side, and the price he had to pay was dodging anti sematic gossipmongers like Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), being banished by the very industry that feeds him, and being forced to not take any credit for any of his brilliant pieces of work, sometimes having to write bad movies to pay his rent and support his family. Anyone who has even remotely faced a scenario like is bound to be moved by the movie, but it’s disappointing that the film never rises beyond this level.
Hitting the viewers with a dramatic copout is the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) whose portrayal seems cartoonish at best. We’re supposed to believe that this villainous committee has been created in the depths of hell, but the threat is never really apparent. It could be because the viewer already knows that the committee dissolved at some point in the future so the threat levels dissipate, but it could also be because director Roach, who has earlier made the Austin Powers movies, doesn’t really have a strong grasp on drama. So the emotional devastation that Trumbo faces is never quite apparent, and even if Cranston is cranking out his most dramatic forehead fold the film never truly sucks you into its conflict.
To make the film’s villain even less involving the legendary actor John Wayne (played by David James Elliot) is portrayed in a caricaturist manner as a supporter of the HUAC’s belief system. On the other hand a surprisingly interesting aspect is Trumbo’s pal Arlen Hind (Louis CK) who often mouths idealism in typical Louis CK fashion. It’s during his scenes that the film nimbly dances the line between comedy and drama. One wishes the rest of the film danced around in the gray area, rather than existing in broad strokes.