Initially a successful novelist, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo shot to the top of M-G-M Studios in the late 1930s, raking in Oscar nominations (1940’s “Kitty Foyle”) and an impressive $4,000 a week. But, as is the case with most biopics, tragedy struck; leaving Trumbo a blacklisted Communist who served a year in jail in 1950. Once released, a lack of studio offers forced the talented wordsmith to churn out cheap B-pictures under assumed aliases — two of which wound up winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Only in Hollywood.
As a story, “Trumbo” is right in the wheelhouse of an industry that pretends to love fiction while secretly loving its own salacious history. Director Jay Roach, typically known for lowbrow comedies that include “Meet The Parents” (2000), is shamelessly enamored with the magic of the past, peppering in newsreel footage, recreated film sets and superstars of the era.
The last of those inclusions is particularly fun, as supporting roles are filled by real life leading men like Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). Rounded out with a vicious turn from Helen Mirren as nasty columnist Hedda Hopper, and Roach’s supporting cast proves invaluable to the historical proceedings that surround them.
That history is one that’s changed radically in the past eight decades. Though deemed right by the government during their “fight against communism,” “Trumbo” is a story that wears its judgment on its sleeve. The Communists are not bad people, as Trumbo and his writing cohorts (including a great Louis C.K.) prove time and time again throughout the film — they are mistreated merely because of their differing views. It’s a safe message to pad into a movie in 2015, but regardless, the sincerity is worth taking note of. And while things can easily veer into the valley of heavy-handedness, especially when Trumbo becomes a badgering workaholic to his family, this preachy melodrama still works in a nostalgic sort of way. Several critics have made unflattering comparisons to “Trumbo” resembling a TV movie, but the style ultimately suits its period piece origins and makes for a snug fit.
At the center of it all is the man himself, Dalton Trumbo. Played with snickering panache by Bryan Cranston, the screenwriter is lush with personality, witty wordplay and a true presence onscreen. One gets the sense Trumbo even surpassed his movies in the charisma department, and that assumption gets played up by Cranston and Roach. The only issue with this choice is that emotions are tough to spot underneath a bear of a mustache and enough cigarettes to warm the Earth. There are times when Cranston gets dangerously close to crafting a caricature, but he never quite falls off the cliff into artificiality.
All in all, “Trumbo” is a completely satisfying if not creatively incredible film. Roach takes few risks with his direction, but the ones he does take are pleasantly integrated without sticking out.
The cast, backed by solid turns from Diane Lane and Elle Fanning, are about as fleshed out as a story like this will allow, while Cranston puffs it up as the titular character. It’s not as masterful as the pictures Dalton Trumbo himself wrote, but I’m sure he’d get a kick out of this solid little biopic.
Danilo Castro is a resident of Oro Valley and writer for the Film Noir Archive blog at www.filmnoirarchive.com