Jay Roach’s Trumbo strikes me as a movie with a small target audience of people who care about Hollywood history without caring too much about movies themselves. It’s a well-intentioned recounting of the time when blathering idiots in Congress whipped up enough Americans with anti-Communist propaganda that they had to do something about it, that something being mindless persecution costing a great many people their livelihoods. (That we, too, live in a time where blathering politicians make a lot of noise about taking away civil liberties is a parallel not unnoticed.) At the center is screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (here played with gravel and scene-chewing by Bryan Cranston, late of Breaking Bad) who wrote many films (including A Guy Named Joe and Gun Crazy) before running afoul of conservative business folks who were sufficiently spooked by his Communist party affiliation to blacklist him and others like him. The movie lays out the broad strokes of the Blacklist’s rise and fall without caring too much about pesky things like nuance, context, or ambiguity.
With docudrama gloss, Roach (best known for directing Austin Powers, but who has done the reenactment thing before, with election-based HBO films Recount and Game Change) sets about recreating 1950’s Hollywood. He uses the too-bright, too-clean style of every biopic unconcerned with capturing anything but the events. He’s armed with a clear message of right and wrong (Yay, artists! Boo, bullies!), an interesting real-life hook, and a host of recognizable faces playing famous people. (There’s Michael Stuhlbarg as character actor Edward G. Robinson, Helen Mirren as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas, and so on.) The screenplay by John McNamara (NBC’s Aquarius) serves up the narrative with simple clarity and strictly expositional dramaturgy, which renders every line flat with the dust of a particularly earnest book report. People stand around explaining things to each other, talking like they’re dictating their thought processes, philosophies, and motivations for posterity. At one point, Trumbo is told to “stop talking like your words are being chiseled in granite.” Would that the film had taken its own hint.
The shame of it is that there’s a good story here. Trumbo was a first amendment hero, and the movie does the bare minimum to show it. He speechifies, he testifies, and he’s always a charismatic charmer. The scene where he refuses to name names and runs quippy circles around a Congressional committee is the highlight in this regard. But as he spends years hammering out scripts under pseudonyms for less pay and no credit, even winning Oscars for movies (like Roman Holiday) he can’t acknowledge he’s written, the film merely twinkles with the comfort of hindsight. Sure, poor Trumbo went through some tough times, didn’t he? But, ah, look who got the glory in the end, eh? After all, the Red Scare tried to drive him out of the movies and look who’s still here. Two-plus hours of uncomplicated back-patting from a movie that’s content to view the past from a know-it-all modern standpoint is hard to take. There’s not an ounce of genuine surprise or feeling in the whole thing.
Where’s the real investigation of Trumbo the character? The filmmakers have him on such a high pedestal they forgot to bring him down to our level and really dig into his thoughts and feelings. We see him interacting with his wife (Diane Lane) and kids (including Elle Fanning), but instead of illuminating his personal life, it plays like perfunctory “here’s the family” scenes. We see him organizing support from writer pals (Alan Tudyk, Louis C.K.) and producers (Roger Bart, John Goodman), but those also play like dutifully arranged footnotes played lightly for strained seriousness. Trumbo the movie is clumsy and overfamiliar, too thin for those who know their Hollywood history, too flavorless for anyone. Trumbo the man was a good deep thinker, now immortalized in a movie of depressingly airy superficiality. The good news is that no one will remember this movie in six months, let alone last as long as his works. That’s the problem with bad movies about good filmmakers: there’s no good reason not to just go to the source.