Though not saying much that wasn’t already doled out in the riveting 2007 Peter Askin documentary of the same name, Trumbo manages to just about transcend Jay Roach’s (Austin Powers, Game Change) basic cable-esque direction thanks to a classy ensemble, led by the venerable Bryan Cranston.
Celebrated Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s (Cranston) card-carrying support of the Community Party landed him in hot water with the U.S. government in the late 1940s, as he ended up on a “blacklist” which prevented him from working in movies…at least under his own name. As Trumbo and others continued to work under secret aliases, they also had to deal with the public and personal pressures of being an open Communist in the Cold War era.
This is a film in something of an awkward position, because it’s an extremely niche subject that won’t see much play outside of a rigid demographic, but then it also wants to be a broad drama that appeals to the layman and explains everything in simple terms, crammed full of exposition. The result is a movie that won’t totally satisfy anyone, heavy-handedly depicting Trumbo’s enemies as black-and-white bumbling idiots, even though the judgments laid down upon Trumbo and others for their religious beliefs are undeniably shocking from a 2015 perspective.
Though Roach’s direction feels very unimaginative and by-the-numbers for the most part, he admittedly does a fine job of combining archive footage with modern recreations, even if the real-life stuff is largely more interesting than the docudrama. Still, it plays well opposite Cranston’s as-Trumbo testament, and brief, entertaining appearances from the likes of John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) do help prevent ennui from setting in.
Still, it’s the cast more than the material that makes the film work well enough; Cranston for one is superb in the titular role and would probably be courting stronger Oscar buzz were the rest of the film as good as him. Some of his best scenes involve banter with fictional blacklisted author Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), while there are also memorable appearances by Michael Stuhlbarg, Diane Lane, John Goodman and Helen Mirren (though her American accent is all over the place) to name just a few.
If it trundles along a little too aimlessly at times and feels like a cliff notes version of real events, the irreverent tone (complete with plenty of blue language) keeps it from feeling too much like a sanitised TV film, though it’s the performances that manage to elevate it beyond merely watchable.
Trumbo is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas February 5th