After watching Bryan Cranston eat up the frame in the trailer for Trumbo, you’ll be sat there in the cinema, for the movie itself, expecting great things. Snappy repartee; iconic performances; an important message about freedom in Hollywood, articulately told from the setting of the movie industry itself. But Trumbo is far too bitty dramatically, and curiously negligent of its own central themes, to resonate any more than another typical, mired biopic.
Dalton Trumbo is a Communist. During the Cold War in the States, that’s not a favourable stance to have; as a successful screenwriter, the grizzly (in terms of temperament and facial hair) family man is enjoying climbing the Hollywood food chain. He’s briskly knocked down when an enquiry into his affiliation with the American Communist Party is initiated – he and his peers are ostracised, blacklisted, and later imprisoned. Trumbo’s fight back into the industry – society, even – serves as the narrative backbone to the film, and the emotional journey is serviced magnificently by lead star Bryan Cranston. But ‘service’ is the key word here; it feels as if Cranston is a sweating captain, desperately trying to plug holes in a ship that’s just not built for a long sea journey. And lengthy Trumbo is; despite being only two hours, it’s largely a slog, thanks to John McNamara’s script never following through on its myriad of plot strands. A strained marriage, personal rivalry between himself and his peers, and wider implications from his political perspective, are all left hanging. By far the most convincing of these is his near-estranged relationship with daughter Nikola (a never-better Elle Fanning), that reveals much more about Trumbo than a film called ‘Trumbo’ seems intent on giving us.
And there’s only so far Cranston’s expertly timed ticks and mannerisms can stop the ship sinking at times. The movie treads almost entirely around his ideological stance; sure, his political views might not make for particularly compelling character traits. But it’s his entire motivation; the movie seems content in expecting us to follow along on this alone. What we get instead are moments mined for coolness, quirkiness, and craziness; John Goodman smashing up his office with a baseball bat is one such case that, while brilliantly entertaining on the surface, serves little purpose elsewhere. Even colourful characters like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and even Helen Mirren’s glamorously glowering paparazzi-monger Hedda Hopper are both great potential villains, and yet are entirely short-changed.
But Trumbo’s better points are sharp. It’s handsomely made, and drips in the same high-calibre class as better biopics, and as mentioned, the cast do tremendous work, finding the emotional cores of their characters despite McNamara’s unweildy screenplay. Perhaps he could’ve taken some cues from Dalton himself.