Dalton Trumbo was a fascinating man. He was a novelist, a perpetually busy screenwriter, a devoted member of the Communist party and – by all accounts - the sort of person who enlivened any room he was in with his sharp wit and big personality. Unfortunately, Bryan Cranston's depiction of the man in Jay Roach's Trumbo zips right past “larger-than-life” and stumbles into the realm of cartoonish caricature. Cranston gave one of the great performances of the 21st century in Breaking Bad, but here often feels like a hammy stage actor who needs to be told that what plays well for a live audience doesn't always play well for the camera. It's a surprisingly miscalculated piece of work, but sadly, Cranston is the least of Trumbo's problems.
The film begins in the late 1940s, when Trumbo and nine other prominent Hollywood figures refused to give information to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo's silence had severe consequences: he was convicted for contempt of Congress, blacklisted and placed in prison for eleven months. When he was released, he had no way of making money, as no studio would touch him with a ten-foot pole. So, Trumbo did the resourceful thing: he wrote under a series of pseudonyms, churning out scripts for opportunistic B-movie producer Frank King (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski).
Trumbo commits countless cinematic crimes, but perhaps the biggest one is that it dramatically oversimplifies a complex situation. There is absolutely no room for anything resembling nuance in Roach's world, as every conflict is boiled down to a simplistic black-and-white duel between forces of pure, noble good and pitiless evil. Yes, McCarthyism was awful and the Hollywood blacklist was shameful, but the movie doesn't even bother to examine the genuine cultural fears that motivated the industry's cowardice. The film only addresses the notion of communism in one scene, when Trumbo explains to his daughter that communism only means being willing to share a sandwich with a hungry kid at school. Yes, he's speaking to a child, but this reductive description is both condescending and dishonest. Rather than making the case that no one should be persecuted for their political beliefs – no matter how messy those beliefs are - the film chooses to sanitize Trumbo's worldview in order to further tip the scales in his favor.
Moreover, the film seems unwilling to actually accuse the industry as a whole of cowardice, instead pinning most of the blame on a handful of right-wing zealots like John Wayne (an unconvincing David James Elliott, JAG) and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren, The Queen). To be sure, Wayne and Hopper were vocal supporters of HUAC and played their part in promoting HUAC's goals, but it seems disingenuous to paint the two of them as vile monsters and to paint all of the directors, studio bosses and producers as innocent, well-meaning victims of circumstance.
The industry's spinelessness is quietly swept under the rug, but the movie is eager to celebrate the “heroic” figures who dared to openly hire Trumbo after the writer spent more than a decade on the blacklist. Look at Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), bravely defying the producers who advise him not to give Trumbo any official credit for Spartacus. Look at Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel, Inglorious Basterds), boldly strolling right up to Trumbo's front door and making a job offer. These things did indeed happen, but such decent gestures pale in contrast to the fact that no one in power had the nerve to defy HUAC's wishes for more than a decade.
These wrong-headed storytelling decisions are made even more aggravating by the film's surprisingly poor craftsmanship. Roach has done decent work making political dramas for HBO (I liked Recount quite a bit), but a lot of scenes in Trumbo feel like the barely-competent work of someone who is just learning how to put a movie together. On many occasions, it looks like a TV movie that was completed on a very tight deadline. The screenplay (by TV screenwriter John McNamara) is even worse, filled to the brim with scenes that talk down to the audience, clumsy exposition and incredibly clunky character introductions (more than once, characters introduce themselves by stating their name and profession, as if they're contestants on a gameshow).
The film boasts an impressive cast, but what use are great actors when all of them are given one-note characters to play? Diane Lane (Unfaithful) plays Dalton's wife Cleo, and her character is probably best described as, “a wife.” Louis C.K. plays the blacklisted Arlen Hird, but seems unable to generate any chemistry with Cranston (probably because they're performing in completely different registers – Cranston is playing a mannered cartoon, while C.K. is basically playing himself). I like Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) a lot, but casting him as Edward G. Robinson? I guess the film is hoping that nobody actually remembers Edward G. Robinson, especially considering that it falsely accuses Robinson of naming names (I have no idea why they didn't just use one of the many people who actually did that).
There are fleeting bright spots. The scenes involving Trumbo's work for King are entertaining, as King greedily takes advantage of Trumbo's misfortune and the esteemed writer grouses about being reduced to penning B-movie trash. Sure, Goodman's performance and character are basically lifted wholesale from Argo, but he was fun in that and he's fun in this. Additionally, Mirren's take on Hedda Hopper is perhaps the film's most memorable element, as Mirren embraces the character's monstrous single-mindedness and turns in something fun and flinty. Still, the good moments are so rare that they feel like stray puddles scattered across a cinematic desert.
Hollywood has a long and storied history of overestimating its own courage. Nearly every Academy Awards ceremony has one or two speeches about how “brave” a movie is, or how noble certain individuals are for “taking a stand” on something. That sort of hyperbolic nonsense is par for the course at this point, but it takes an awful lot of chutzpah to make a movie about the Hollywood blacklist – the most striking historical example of the industry's collective spinelessness – and turn it into a self-mythologizing hymn to Hollywood's resourcefulness and resolve. This should be a movie that makes every studio boss squirm in their seat (it wasn't so long ago that they caved to a different sort of political pressure - remember the nonsense surrounding the release of The Interview?). Instead, it congratulates the industry for having the moral fiber to do the right thing (hey, they did the right thing eventually... y'know, after it was politically and financially safe to do so). If any other filmmakers out there are thinking about tackling this subject matter in the future, take note: getting this story right involves biting the hand that feeds you. Unfortunately, that requires a bit of courage.
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Year: 2015