November is when the studios begin pushing out their shiniest, most important movies of the year, the ones that they hope will catch the attention of the Academy’s voting body with historical gravitas, transformational performances, and, with luck, a Hans Zimmer score to boot. A movie like Trumbo wears its aspirations on its sleeve, from Bryan Cranston’s on-the-nose performance as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to its self-serious portrayal of the Cold War hysteria drummed up by the House Un-American Activities Committee and busybodies like gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. It would have been some sort of poetic justice for Trumbo to be worthy of the awards it’s so thirsty for, if only because Trumbo himself couldn’t take credit for his Oscar-winning scripts for Roman Holiday and The Brave One until well after the fact.
The cast, which includes Michael Stuhlbarg as former Trumbo pal Edward G. Robinson, Diane Lane as Cleo Trumbo, and Helen Mirren as Hopper, is robust and period-perfect, but the overlong script and clunky direction make Trumbo more of a slog than it should be. Louis C.K. is also present as screenwriter Arlen Hird, a composite of Trumbo’s comrades who’s given the most notable line in the film: “Stop talking as if everything you say is going to be chiseled into stone.”
The Hollywood Ten, as they came to be known, were rich and, in the case of Trumbo, famous Hollywood players at the top of their game who found themselves ostracized at best and jailed for contempt of Congress at worst for their Communist sympathies. Although Trumbo and his friends are dedicated to the cause, it’s not really clear why or how or what they do other than avoid crossing the odd picket line and drink expensive liquor during meetings at Robinson’s luxurious house. As Trumbo’s conscience, Hird is the only character who’s willing to take Trumbo to task on just about anything, including the moral quandary of being a very rich man who is also a Communist. Once Trumbo starts cranking out scripts for schlock film producers Frank and Hymie King (John Goodman and Stephen Root, respectively) under various pseudonyms, Hird also questions the point of putting so much hard work into crappy scripts for bad pay. (Never mind that, as writers, they can’t really do anything else but write, even lousy scripts for bupkis.)
Hird’s frustrations with Trumbo nail the problem of the movie itself; every thorny question he brings up, Trumbo shoots down with some witticism that doesn’t offer any insight or even the possibility of internal conflict. There are moments when Trumbo realizes the cost his work has had on his family and friends, but they’re outweighed by the scenes of Cranston puffing away on a cigarette holder and writing on his typewriter in the bathtub, just as Trumbo was photographed doing.
As it is, screenwriter John McNamara and director Jay Roach have their work cut out for them when it comes to convincing modern audiences the importance of the McCarthy era. This is never clearer than when Dalton’s daughter Niki (played by Elle Fanning) joins a local protest against segregation; Dalton sees this as his daughter following in his footsteps, but it’s entirely possible to miss the point of his footsteps in the first place. He offers an incredibly simplistic view of Communism when explaining it to Niki as a child, about whether she’d share her sandwich with another student who didn’t have any lunch, and that’s pretty much the extent of it. Being branded a Communist didn’t just cost the writers, directors, and actors their livelihood; it ruined families and the lives of anyone vaguely associated with them professionally or personally. At the very least, it was an interesting part of old Hollywood history; the problem is that if you are interested in the golden era of Hollywood, this is familiar territory, and not only that, you’ll be able to spot the inconsistencies between fact and fiction. Newcomers who are lured in by the solid cast won’t find a lot to grab on to here, story-wise.
As far as performances go, Cranston practically bleeds for this role, but it feels emotionally hollow. West is given little to nothing to do, except placate both Trumbo and her feisty eldest daughter. Mirren has fabulous hats and some delightfully biting lines, and her character also offers a glimpse of how anti-Semitism and anti-Communism dovetailed in the film industry. The person who seems like he’s having the most fun — who seems like he should have his own movie all to himself, in fact — is Goodman, who wields a baseball bat and declares he’s in the film business for pussy and money. Now there’s a movie I’d want to spend more than two hours of my life watching.