Trumbo Jay Roach
Published Nov 26, 2015Jay Roach's Trumbo, a deeply old-fashioned biopic about the life of Academy award-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, is a gentle plea for compassionate politics in a time of Soviet panic. Much like this year's similarly minded Bridge of Spies, Trumbo makes the case for why the pursuit of justice should take precedent over where you fall on the political spectrum, and the film succeeds thanks to its light touch and perfectly timed humour.
Ultimately, though, Trumbo feels a little too slight to be essential and, for a film about a brilliant screenwriter, has too many scenes where people stand around talking about how great the man's work is, rather than letting the words speak for themselves.
Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter responsible for major pop Hollywood hits like Roman Holiday and Spartacus, who injected healthy doses of his Red Hollywood ideology into mainstream blockbusters in the 1950s. While some have faulted Cranston for going too broad, Trumbo was a larger-than-life character who regularly wrote scripts in the bathtub and was a vocal supporter of the Communist party. Cranston does a very good, if slightly understated job bringing him to life. Much like his defining work in Breaking Bad, Cranston excels at showing both the cartoony exterior and complicated inner workings of very troubled men. If the film fails Cranston, it's thanks to a busy script that tries to pack too much history into two hours.
The film charts the period during the Hollywood Blacklist, when Trumbo and his Hollywood pals ran afoul of Congress during the Red Scare. As a result, Trumbo is barred from doing the writing he loves and has to find new ways to play the political rebel. Alongside Cranston are stellar Hollywood journeymen like Michael Stuhlbarg and John Goodman, as well as Helen Mirren and Diane Lane, all doing very broad and entertaining work. If the film has one weak link, it's Louis CK, who feels like he stepped out of a very different film about the era. CK brings with him the affected naturalism and lived-in performance of his show Louie, creating a jarring tonal shift in his scenes with the hammier Cranston.
Trumbo occasionally feels like an HBO movie from ten years ago, recalling biopics like The Life And Death of Peter Sellers or And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself in their broad, if entertaining portrayals of the allure of classical Hollywood. Similarly, Trumbo has a revolving-door feeling to its sweep of caricatures of classic Hollywood actors like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, brought to life in readymade SNL parody versions of themselves. But if there's a virtue to director Jay Roach's limited style, it's that he communicates the film's commitment to leftist politics with blunt force.
Replacing the garish stylizations of his nightmare 2000's comedies like Austin Powers and Meet The Parents with the more streamlined, if anonymous, style of his HBO political dramas like Game Change and Recount, Roach mostly stays out of the way in Trumbo, directing a fine double, even if the film begs for a home run.