If there’s anything Hollywood loves more than making movies (and money), it’s making movies about movies. Not only is it a way to pat themselves on the back for all the hard work they’ve done, but it generally gets the critics buzzing about how “self aware” and “meta” the filmmakers are. Trumbo however, has a little something else in mind. Chronicling a time when people’s creativity could be stifled just because of what they believed outside of their own writings, the film almost acts like a father slapping his child in the face for being stupid. While that’s normally all well and good, it’s not very healthy at all if the father remembers only the exaggerated strokes of what the child did, with no real interest in delving deeper.
The film chronicles the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston). In 1947, he was one of the top scribes in the game, but that all changes with the rise of Soviet Russia. The United States Government and Hollywood form The House Un-American Activities Committee, to root out Communist artists who they believe are sending out subliminal messages through their films. Trumbo an outspoken Communist, along with nine of his closest colleges are convicted for their beliefs. Upon release, he takes it upon himself to balance the scales, writing some of the most iconic films of the 1950s in secret.
Trumbo is a film lathered in good intentions, if nothing else. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Game Change) earnestly navigates through three decades’ worth of history while propping up the oppressed under-dogs. On paper, it’s a perfect biopic, but that’s what the film feels like, paper. A simple, plain white, and utterly biased retelling of the events that lacks any sense of substance or depth. Sure, we want to rally behind Dalton Trumbo’s rebellion against his oppression, but what does it matter if everyone around him is so flatly written. In the eyes of this film, you’re either a noble crusader looking to take down the system, or you’re essentially a Storm Trooper for Darth Mccarthy. There’s so much focus on the political in-fighting that we hardly get to see Trumbo’s creative process at all, which to me is the most fascinating aspect of any artist. These characters might as well just be sock puppets playing a role in a history show, garbling out facts with their exaggerated facial features.
It’s even more unfortunate that the sock puppets in question are made in the form of some amazingly talented actors. It goes without saying that Bryan Cranston is an absolutely magnetic screen-presence, but he’s so over-directed here that this natural charisma gets covered up by posturing and bravado. Sure, he’s a quirky man who says funny and often very intelligent things, but it never stops feeling like an actor pretending to be this man. It’s not a terrible performance by any means, but it’s one that is desperately fighting against the script and direction to wring some sort of humanity out of this guy. It’s a shame too, because it would have only taken some slight dialing back to get a great performance out of Cranston. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is either half asleep, or playing cartoon characters. Helen Mirren in particular goes way into borderline comically evil territory as Hedda Hopper, oozing contempt with every glance. Meanwhile Louis CK as Arlen Hird seems like he’d rather be anywhere else, charming only when his ever-lovable stage persona slips out from the thin sheet that is his character, while Diane Lane shrugs through the same supportive wife role she’s had to play for years with utter boredom.
Every so often though, Trumbo will put its more entertaining aspects front and center with decent results. Although the characterization here is pretty weak for the most part, there are some moments of rather solid dialogue, and generally speaking, most of the film is pretty funny. Shining most brightly is a scene early on when Trumbo tells off an absolutely outrageous “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” version of John Wayne. It’s four minutes filled with more passion and gusto than the rest of the film combined. Also, although the performances are for the most part pretty weak, there are moments where the actors escape their caricaturish direction to bring out some real drama. It’s just a shame how few and far between these moments are.
Trumbo is the cinematic equivalent of listening to your grandfather tell an exaggerated recounting of a historical event he was in. Naturally, he’s really only willing to share his side of the story, and there’s a whole lot of loud voices and silly side-tracks involved. That would all be well and good if the film had a bit more style, but Jay Roach’s direction is so flat that it ultimately just comes across as a glorified TV movie. It’s the kind of movie to watch if you’re alone at home with a pizza, and want a little history to supplement the loneliness, but if you’re really looking for insight into why a writer does what he does, you may want to put this one in the “un-produced” pile.