Trumbo is the fun, pacy, and rather insubstantial story of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s struggle to be recognised for his work despite his political beliefs, battling betrayal from other film industry communists, time in prison, family conflict, artistic compromise, and oscillation between wealth and bankruptcy. Blacklisted for his communist politics, Trumbo was the true author of the Oscar-winning screenplays for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, written under pseudonyms; he was only given the awards under his own name, posthumously, this century.
Much of the film’s spark comes from the central figure of Dalton Trumbo, performed with relish by Bryan Cranston. The film’s first image of the warthog-like author, enclosed in his bath by a portable writing desk, damp, warty, long-lashed, and puffing on a cigarette in a long-stemmed holder, defines Roach’s almost overly congratulatory, but not quite hagiographic portrayal; he makes an icon of the man while retaining his humanity. Trumbo is idiosyncratic, an unglamorous glamorous figure, and also full of kindness, good humour and integrity. His artistic, florid language is enjoyably infuriating, and striking in its disparity from the other characters, yet has the downside of jarringly giving us the sense that he and Louis CK’s grumbling misanthrope writer Arlen Hird (a composite character) inhabit different films, as well as different worlds within the story.
Trumbo is a good-looking movie, but it lacks the sumptuous depth of Carol, for example, also set in ‘50s America – everything looks a little too polished and staged. But its faux-glitter could easily be seen as a way of conveying how the aesthetic pageantry of Hollywood was bound up with, and barely concealed, the corrupt, narrow-minded and jingoistic views at its core, in its blackballing of any writers hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Yet sometimes the film’s relatively gentle, well-meaning nature tips into tedium; Trumbo’s conflict between his duty to his family and his labours to be recognised through the merit of his work feel as if they were written on autopilot, to pay lip service to the family he loved but sometimes disregarded, and give a sense of the dissonance between work and domestic life. But just because the home is not the film’s main focus, there’s no reason why Diane Lane and Elle Fanning’s characters should be as meaningless and dull as they are – Lane playing his wife Cleo, Fanning his daughter Nikola. They never venture beyond the two-dimensional, Lane’s role especially underwritten and unchallenging, surely a blow for such a distinguished actor. These parts are in sharp opposition with Michael Stuhlbarg’s brilliant turn as the effete, shifty, subtle Edward G. Robinson (in direct contrast to Robinson’s legacy as an actor famed for his macho roles in gangster films), and John Goodman’s typical but perfect cameo as explosive, foul-mouthed pulp movie merchant Frank King.
Trumbo, ultimately, celebrates Hollywood while criticising its mistakes. The celebration, though, is not of the industry itself, but rather of the magic of film and the triumph of art – in Trumbo’s devious, impressive victory over his censors. Yet this still feels a bit pat, a bit hollow – not least because modern Hollywood is struggling to produce many movies that genuinely feel magical. Trumbo isn’t one of them, and even more cynically, it could be said that it falls into the most prominent and tired category of mainstream American cinema – a flashy, sleek period biopic with little staying power in the individual or cultural imagination. But while its solid plot and relatively gentle tone do undermine its final message, it’s nonetheless a fun, escapist, compelling (rather than gripping) glimpse into a turbulent piece of history.
Words by Charlotte Palmer