About the only thing keeping Trumbo from scoring full points on the BINGO card of Oscar season subject matter is that Bryan Cranston’s brilliant-but-tragic historical figure from Hollywood’s Golden Age isn’t the character in it who contracts lung cancer. Portraying life with a fatal disease is old pork pie hat to Cranston, so it’d be cheating history, and his fellow nominees, to give him that particular hallmark of a Serious Work. Yet, what surprises most about Trumbo during its march to a familiar prestige biopic tune is its reined in pretensions.
It’s not just the rich cast and juicy insider perspective that make talking about Trumbo in terms of its awards potential so tempting. The film itself is about one man’s decades-long fight for recognition within Hollywood, both as a writer, and a free man. The post-war America that saw Dalton Trumbo become Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter was also the one that put him in the crosshairs for involvement with the communist party. Along with the nine other writers, directors, and producers that formed the infamous Hollywood Ten, Trumbo’s refusal to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee cost him a short stint in prison, and years in a struggle to continue writing while on the blacklist.
Trumbo’s was a life burdened by personal hardship and national politics. But the heights of glamour and paranoia that define the period make Trumbo’s brassier indulgences understandable. There are lots of heated exchanges between marquee names of the era, all caps proclamations about what it means to be an American, and there’s a big monologue at the end for Cranston to wrap everything up in a nice neat bow.
Director Jay Roach manages to keep Trumbo’s dips into self-importance to a minimum. Trumbo’s secretly penning The Brave One, Roman Holiday, and Spartacus while on the blacklist gives the film plenty of runway for winking jokes about old classics, but the right to work, rather than the works themselves, is always what’s really at stake. As befitting Roach’s comedy background, Trumbo is at its best when celebrating its subject’s humorist intelligence.
In tackling the undesirable task of putting words in the mouth of an acclaimed writer, scripter John McNamara has plenty of wit to offer, but not much of a spine to build around. The tension between Trumbo’s political leanings and ambition make for an interesting undercurrent, but his actual life story lacked a three-act structure that most screenwriter’s live by. Trumbo’s events aren’t ever disconnected enough to feel totally episodic, but the clearest sense of continuity comes from seeing the Dalton children age, and the white in Cranston’s handlebar mustache bloom.
“If every scene is brilliant, your movie will be monotonous,” Trumbo says at one point to Exodus director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), providing perhaps the best explanation for why Cranston – voice slippers-and-bathrobe soft, even when yelling – never gets the chance to astound you. He’s reliably engaging here, and an ideal mouthpiece for dialogue that’s two parts witticism, one part aphorism. The domestic scenes shared by Dalton and wife Cleo (Diane Lane), or with eldest child, Nikola (Elle Fanning), bring the most bulk of the emotional weight to Trumbo, both in terms of performance, and presentation. More often, the golden age glitz provides Roach an excuse to enjoy showy sets and flattering high-key lighting. Sequences meant to imitate films or news footage of the era draw further attention to Trumbo’s glossy memory.
Comedian Louis C.K., playing an actor playing screenwriter Arlen Hird, is put against Cranston in some early scenes, and so far as capital-A acting is concerned, it’s like watching a featherweight take on Rocky Marciano. But C.K.’s no more wrong for the part than Helen Mirren is as muckraking gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, or Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson. Their job is to give Cranston a variety of sparring partners to spark Trumbo’s matchbook of one-liners delivered between cigarette drags. It’s an excuse to see beloved faces from this generation play behind-the-scenes legends from an older one. And the cast has a grand time with it, no one more so than John Goodman as B-through-Z movie producer Frank King, who employed Trumbo while he worked under various pseudonyms.
“Well, we’ve got the gorilla suit,” King says when asked what kind of movies he wants to make. Earlier, he rejects the suggestion of a gangster flick because he’s seen it too many times already. “You’ve seen it a few times because it makes money,” Trumbo replies adroitly. Whiteout “makes money,” and replace it with “garners awards,” and you’ll know why Trumbo often feels like its reading from a familiar script. The spryness with which it dramatizes one of Hollywood’s darkest chapters doesn’t lead to many revealing insights about the business, or the man at the movie’s center, but does make the whole of the affair refreshingly breezy.
Thankfully, a post-credits interview with Trumbo – the real Trumbo – does true honor to the man by letting him speak for himself.
What Trumbo lacks for inspiration it makes up for with a high wattage ensemble, zippy dialogue, and unexpected modesty.