Everything about Dalton Trumbo’s life seems ready-made for a big Hollywood movie. There is certainly plenty there to tell an intriguing story. Trumbo was a complex character with incredible writing talent and strong, divisive political persuasions. His headbutting with Congress and the major studios offers plenty of material for a fascinating biopic. Unfortunately “Trumbo” is a glossed-over account that seems most interested in only presenting half of the story.
The centerpiece of the film is Bryan Cranston as Trumbo. His performance is big, showy, and certainly something the Oscars would feel compelled to nominate. But I don’t want to shortchange him. Cranston is very entertaining and he often keeps the film afloat. His postures, tone, and mannerisms are a lot of fun.
The story looks at Trumbo’s life as a screenwriter and family man. But its main focus is on his confrontation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities due to his pro-Communist position and how it led to a prison sentence and a spot on the Hollywood Blacklist. Director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara paint Trumbo as a martyr for free speech by concentrating on the persecution he and his family went through at the hands of the government, entertainment figures, and the public.
To do this a wild variety of fictional and true-life characters are brought into the story. Most are there to make Trumbo look more heroic. Take the clownish, cartoony portrayal of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren). Every scene she is in aims to make her the most sinister person on the planet and Trumbo more sympathetic. John Wayne (David James Elliot) is there to show Trumbo’s bravery. Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) is there to show Trumbo’s unwillingness to cave under the most unfair threats of persecution. So many characters seem present to serve a specific purpose instead of bringing any real humanity to the people or the story.
The one place where it is different is at home. The pressures eventually bleed over into his family life as Trumbo shuts himself off from his wife and children. This is the one place where Trumbo isn’t portrayed as a saint. Diane Lane if good as Trumbo’s wife Cleo. She is depicted as the anchor who keeps the family together, but at the same time she is written as quiet and subservient. I wish she had been given a little more to do. Elle Fanning plays Trumbo’s daughter. She is a fireball and is given much more personality.
There is a host of other supporting cast members including Louis C.K., John Goodman, Alan Tudyk, Dean O’Gorman, and Christian Berkel among others. They are all fine but basically get lost in the film’s biggest problem – its lethargic story. “Trumbo” is such an up-and-down experience. It can be smart and surprisingly funny. At the same time it lacks a consistent energy that you would expect from such a story. There are a number of dull runs where the story just sits and spins its wheels.
Aside from its lack of spark “Trumbo” fails to dive into the character and story complexities which would have made this an interesting biopic. Instead the film chooses to make a statement by painting Trumbo as the innocent, persecuted hero free of any possible culpability. They certainly have the right to tell that kind of one-sided story, but considering the lulls the story suffers through I can’t help but think a more truthful telling would have resulted in a better and more compelling drama.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS