Director Jay Roach turns his attention to legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the aptly named Trumbo (2015), based on the biography by Bruce Alexander Cook. A noted communist who tirelessly fought for the rights of blacklisted writers in Golden Era Hollywood, Trumbo is a fascinating figure who is so ingrained in the fabric of tinsel town’s century-old history, though exactly why his work was so highly regarded – and successful – is lost in the mire of this glossy, ham-fisted biopic that settles for surface-level summations.
Seamlessly seguing from one colossal character – Breaking Bad’s meth kingpin Walter White – to another, Bryan Cranston gives a typically studied, full-bodied and quite remarkable performance as the titular Trumbo, a man who wears his political beliefs on his sleeve and whose services are called upon to rescue flailing movie productions – as well as write award-winning scripts of his own. A loving husband to his understanding wife (played by Diane Lane) and doting father to three children, Trumbo is an all-American man who prides himself on hard work and a staunch love of his country.
The latter affection is fuelled by a controversial belief that Communism is the most people-friendly political stance, lands Trumbo and his fellow commies in trouble after refusing to testify in the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. Subsequently blacklisted and briefly imprisoned, Trumbo gradually makes his return by writing screenplays for a production house grounded on trashy movies, lucratively operating under several pseudonyms and even winning Academy Awards for his efforts.
Though his work ethic continued to pay dividends, and he began collaborating with the likes of Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas, Trumbo soon finds that mending his damaged ego leaves him at risk of alienating his long-suffering family. With the ‘Hollywood Ten’ – aka Trumbo, Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), etc. – remaining one of the most sensational chapters of McCarthy era Hollywood, the stage is supposedly set for a fascinating examination of a studio system so foreign to the way it continues to operate today, yet in Roach’s hands the result is a glossy and almost ham-fisted treatment of a once-promising screenplay by John McNamara. Evidently enamoured with the decadent sheen of the post-war period, which is reflected in the set design and look of the film, which lacks the graceful authenticity of, say, a Todd Haynes production, Roach tackles the several decades Trumbo strove to regain his relevancy and power by packing in as much detail as possible, which is a commendable undertaking that leaves several important elements of the story under-explained.
Sadly, McNamara never actually delves into how or why Trumbo’s fingers had the ability to spin gold; what we get instead is an abundance of montages of the man at his desk striking away at his typewriter, or in the bath (as was his wont) frantically editing his work. A more discerning character study would have taken this enduring figure and ask why he was so talented, but no matter how competent Cranston is the film never rises to that challenge. Similarly, the pencil eye-browed, flamboyantly be-hatted Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren, complete with wobbly accent), who used her infamous gossip column to attack Trumbo et al, is an important figure in the story, yet the reasons for her steadfast bloodlust is never explored. It’s a tell-tale sign when the nominal handsome quality of a production design fills in for the entertainment value of a clear Oscar-bait product, and no matter how much Roach tries do be as all-encompassing as possible, his inability to fine-tune the film’s focus ultimately finds his film failing to become the biopic it wants and needs to be.
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