Arts movie review

Trumbo offers a shallow take on Hollywood’s writer’s bloc

The new biopic of Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo falls short of revolutionary

★★★✩✩

Trumbo

Directed by Jay Roach

Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C.K., Helen Mirren

Rated R

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It seems more than a little fitting that Jay Roach’s new biopic, Trumbo, is classified as a ‘Drama’ for the forthcoming Golden Globes in spite of its studio’s preference for it to be considered in the less competitive Comedy category. This is fitting not only since Trumbo is a movie that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but also because it betrays the navel-gazing, self-referential tendencies of Hollywood that the movie initially seeks to satirize but ultimately falls victim to itself.

Following the opening credit sequence which offers some historical context — wherein we learn that Dalton Trumbo joined the Community Party of America in 1943 — the movie starts with the titular Trumbo asleep in the bath. Trumbo, played with the now-familiar curmudgeonly charm of Bryan Cranston, stirs from amphibious slumber to return to his writing. We immediately cut from this bath-based bathos to a black-and-white mafia scene, which we soon learn is the product of Trumbo’s screenwriting when the fourth wall is broken and we see him behind the camera providing guidance to the actors.

As a screenwriter, Trumbo’s star is rising: it is not long before he signs a contract which makes him the highest paid writer in Hollywood and thus the world. Yet Trumbo’s political proclivities are not to the liking of many of his peers, especially John Wayne, head of the Motion Picture Alliance, and the poison-penned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. In a memorable early scene, a sardonic Trumbo needles the Goliath-sized Wayne about his non-existent war record, narrowly avoiding an old-fashioned sock to the jaw.

The movie sustains a steady and engaging pace in its first act, as the financial, personal and legal consequences of Trumbo’s recalcitrant communism take their toll. The production values are high here: not merely in the lush landscapes and lavish living rooms of the Hollywood elite, but also in the immersive use of pseudo-found footage and contemporary press cuttings, which paint a vivid picture of the political environment. Politics, it seems, is mostly a matter of perception, and thus political power rests with those able to shape perception, through the multimodal media system.

Yet it is the necessary fate of biopics that they are only as eventful as their subjects’ lives, and following the dramatic nadir of incarceration early on, Trumbo’s plot slackens as its pace slows. The magnificent belated arrival of John Goodman aside, Trumbo transitions from tense historical thriller to middling family drama as it enters its second hour. Reunited with his loved ones, Trumbo and his colleagues embark on an audacious and (ironically, given his ideology) entrepreneurial scheme to keep the money flowing in, effectively applying Fordist principles of mass production to the writing and distribution of movie scripts.

It is only Cranston’s consistency in his handling of both legal and familial melodrama which holds together this decidedly double-jointed story arc. This will be familiar to veterans of Breaking Bad — though unlike in that series, the physicality of terminal illness is handled here instead with surprising grace by Louis C.K., in his role as Trumbo’s more conscientious co-conspirator Arlen Hird. The comedian’s gallows humor serves as a refreshing refrain at headier moments.

In addition to its chimeric plot, one also senses a missed opportunity in Trumbo’s treatment of Hollywood through the ages. Film buffs may enjoy the rendering of figures like Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger and its references to classics like Spartacus, which forms the basis for the movie’s peroration. But Trumbo’s early principled idealism has, by the end, been completely superseded in focus by financial accomplishment and critical acclaim — the two commodities which, of course, Hollywood values above all else. Thus though Trumbo’s attempt to parody its paymasters started brightly with its treatment of the buffoonish John Wayne and the MPA, by the time characters are literally handing each other Oscars, it feels as insightful as a chameleon on a mirror.

Trumbo, then, is a faithful enough paean to its protagonist, and contains sufficient zingy one-liners and flashes of nostalgia to hold the attention throughout. But the overall experience feels rather like the hot bath wherein we first encounter Trumbo and to which he returns throughout the movie: captivating at first, and satisfying enough throughout, but by the time we get out, disappointingly lukewarm.

1 Comment
1
John Duval about 2 years ago

The movie Trumbo completely misrepresents the avarice conniving man that Trumbo was, he was all about the money and getting attention, he was not a hero, just a grandstander who took from others if he could get away with it.

Dalton Trumbo lied about being the original author of the 1956 Oscar winning film, The Brave One. My father wrote the original screenplay and died before film production.

Trumbo was a fast writer and during the Blacklist period he was forced to write and rewrite scripts for less money for low-life producers like the King Bros and anyone else who paid him under the table. Trumbo did it for the money. The King Bross nephew Robert Rich, who was listed as the author, was an office errand boy and bag man who picked up scripts and delivered cash to pay Trumbo.

Robert Rich did not attend the Oscar awards because he was cooperating with the FBI who were watching Trumbo and Rich didnt want to be publicly humiliated when the truth came out (FBI File Number: 100-1338754; Serial: 1118; Part: 13 of 15).

My Spanish father, Juan Duval, was a member of the Writers Guild of America (West). The WGAW destroyed my fathers original screenplays, which Im told was the practice of WGAW.

Juan Duval, poet, dancer, choreographer, composer and director of stage and film, wrote the original story/screenplay that The Brave One was based and presented it to a shareholder in the King Bros production company, who then gave it to Morrie King (one of the three King brothers). My father died before film production began.

In 1935, my father directed the highest grossing Spanish speaking movie up to that time, which starred Movita (Marlon Brandon's second wife). My father's best friend was Federico Garcia Lorca and he tried to talk Lorca out of re-entering Spain in July 1936. In 1937, my father published a series of articles about the presence of Nazis in the Canary Islands and in one of the articles, he named who murdered Lorca and why.

My father joined the US Army Air Force in January 1942 and was sent to Tunis where he had fought in WWI. He was fluent in five languages and served as a Tech Sargent. He was Honorably Discharged for ill health in 1943, the same year that Trumbo joined the Communist Party.

I request that the Academy recognize my fathers work and issue him an Oscar for his original story and screenplay which the 1956 movie, The Brave One was based.