Let Trumbo be the textbook example for future generations to distinguish between a good story with fine performances and snappy dialogue, and a good film. An entirely familiar period piece whose best attributes are reduced to window dressing, Trumbo is certainly not an unpleasant experience, but one drastically in need of a reduction in either narrative scope or exhibition venue that strains its 127 minutes by replaying the same kind of scenes over and over. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of the red scare and the Hollywood blacklist, this may be a terrific entry point. But it’s hard to imagine that one of the most gifted writers and thinkers in film history would be impressed with a gussied-up HBO movie that’s been padded and stretched beyond its visual breaking point.
Not to disparage HBO films. The small screen is ideal for many types of films, notably two similarly political works by director Jay Roach, Recount and Game Change. And given the film’s focus and slant, it would have been ideal for Trumbo, had Roach made up his mind more clearly as to whether he wanted to make a character study or docudrama.
Bryan Cranston stars as the titular Dalton Trumbo, a writer of many successful films and author of the celebrated Johnny Got His Gun. As the nation turns from elation at the conclusion of World War II to paranoia over supposed communist infiltration, opportunistic politicians and vengeful industry insiders begin to suspect the film business of being run by dangerous subversives who seek to destroy American values through the influential power of cinema. Trumbo, a registered member of the Communist Party, and his close colleagues of intellectuals with varying liberal-to-leftist views are publicly targeted by the likes of John Wayne and the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) and find themselves blacklisted from all employment after refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Keen observers of Hollywood’s previous depictions of life in showbiz under the Red Scare will note one key difference between Trumbo and past films with similar themes. Movies like Guilty By Suspicion and Good Night, and Good Luck take the stand of supporting free expression and revulsion at the persecution of thought crimes, but the heroes are invariably mainstream liberals caught in the crossfire, rather than the actual radicals themselves. Trumbo and other members of the Hollywood Ten, as they became known, were dedicated activists in addition to being talented artists, yet their stories have never been directly examined.
Roach is clearly as interested in educating audiences as entertaining them, but the balance is thrown off when Trumbo’s flirtations with big ideas give way to sometimes loving, sometimes mawkish, family drama. As a historical document, there’s a peculiar blend of actors giving full-bodied performances as real people sharing the screen with others who are mostly doing impressions. Some of the supporting performances are scene-stealing (such as John Goodman and Alan Tudyk), while others are either underused or miscast (Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Louis C.K.).
Despite its flaws, Trumbo tells a story whose time has come with enough flair for language and desire to show that even the worst of times cannot extinguish what is best about humanity. Yet, its uneven ambitions fail to steer the proceedings away from feeling like a story we’ve seen before, even if it focuses on a protagonist we haven’t.
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