By the books but still fascinating, this biographical drama tells us about a man that some may know but plenty won’t have. I like films…a lot but I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Dalton Trumbo and the prejudices he was put through. This is a good looking film with a proper good lead but it’s not always engaging.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is a well voiced member of the Communist Party of the USA along with 9 other writers. Though it being 1949 and Russia no longer an ally thanks to threats of Cold War, Trumbo is soon blacklisted and imprisoned for his stance though that won’t stop him writing some of the most loved movies of the classic Hollywood era.
John McNamara has a lot of history with television writing and producing and perhaps that’s why this feature feels or rather, sounds like a TV movie. It has all those elements as we follow Trumbo in the beginning, see his political views, watch him interact in jail and then flourish even when he should be waning thanks to his blacklisted status. It’s an interesting film to a point, mostly in learning about this incredible man but it’s never grand or romantic or captivating like ‘Spartacus’ or ‘Roman Holiday’ are. This work about Dalton Trumbo doesn’t ring like a cinematic gem, more a small screen network filler.
Jay Roach directs this drama well, the centre focus is of course on Trumbo and how he behaves which is at a point great because it connects us to him but even when they attempt to show his flaws, they’re never fully formed making him too pushed onto us. It’s not like they’re showing one side of the story as we all know about Communism but we don’t all know about that when located in the Hollywood industry. Sadly we never really see the truth of Trumbo’s defending of brutal ideals as everyone on his side is painted as innocent. Of course I never knew what he said or what other figures never said, e.g. the case of Edward G. Robinson, but I looked into the people of this movie because of how easily likable they made the Communist side which is a little too simple.
Roach does give this film a good twist of lightness even amongst the darkness of Trumbo’s forced secretive writings. There is a spectacle involved as we see him journey to typing Oscar winning movies and how that effects people on either side of the party he belongs to. But for me the strongest element of the movie isn’t the factual elements needed to be told but the charisma and heart located in the acting department.
Bryan Cranston embodies the hunched writer with moustached aptitude, he is the true decorative trophy on this film’s mantelpiece. Cranston does great things in making you look past the uneven tone of the film and the televisual atmosphere it presents because he has energy, a spark of wit and talent just like the real life Trumbo. Michael Stuhlbarg shines as Edward G. Robinson, looking the part and giving dramatical urgency in his call up to reveal damning (if inaccurate) truths about who he knows. Diane Lane is the sturdy rock of this film, always being there even when she fears the man she loves is turning. Lane deserves more credit because though she’s not always on screen she keeps the family image believable. Louis C.K is smart and funny as the light balance to Trumbo’s persona though weirdly he’s a fictional character which doesn’t help in making this film feel less terrestrial. Elle Fanning steps in as the grown up daughter in a moment that really stuns as to how someone so short and different to Fanning grew to become Fanning but that moment aside she is a bright face to this starry cast and she notably displays the same motivation and active behaviour of Trumbo. Helen Mirren wavers in her accent, sounding British from time to time but she never drops in being the bitchy headline writing queen and almost steals the show with her ever-changing hats.
So, where the poster quote from Deadline reads that this is “one of the year’s must-see pictures”, I’d say that it’s only recommendable for people that admire the cinema and behind the scenes talent that produced the sparkle of Hollywood of old, otherwise it’s a film with great acting but a pedestrian TV vibe.