Glossy, Heroic ‘Trumbo’ Doesn’t Go Too Deep

CHICAGO – Hindsight, as they say, has 20/20 vision, and there is a lot of hindsight in the new film Trumbo (2015). The story of Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who was blacklisted by the film industry for being a Communist in the witch-hunting 1950s, creates a smell-like-a-rose heroism for its title character. But there is a desire for more to this story, and the easy route the narrative took painted the scenario in black (government bad) and white (Trumbo good). Ironically, the screenplay of Trumbo doesn’t do his story any favors.

Bryan Cranston breaks out further in portraying Dalton Trumbo, but his performance strains a bit to keep the man from sliding into a cheap impression. The circumstance surrounding the witch hunt is just a bit too precious to somehow be the best story about it. Trumbo is shown to be a wonderful family man, speaker of perfectly timed truths and a martyr for justice. I have no doubt he was all of these, but the story of blacklisting people – for legally belonging to a political party in America – needed more shades of gray, and more desperation than just humorously showing the screenwriter working for a cheap movie studio, while he was on the black list.

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Image: Bleecker Street Media

Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) is one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood, during the post World War II era in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This is also a time for the Communist scare, as Russia becomes an enemy, and the U.S. begins hunting for American citizens who are affiliated with the party. Trumbo is a card carrying Communist (legal in America), but refuses to name any colleagues when confronting the House Un-American Activities Committee.

His fellow Communist writers, like Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), are affected by his testimony, and a successful blacklisting campaign – led by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) – is launched to drive them all out of the film industry. Trumbo’s only refuge is his wife Cleo (Diane Lane), his family and his ability to write. Throughout the 1950s, he uses the names of others on his screenplays or makes them up, and works at a schlock movie studio headed by Frank King (John Goodman). It takes a sympathetic Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) to adjust the situation.

There was a lot of surface story to tell, though not much chance for subtlety, and the overall experience suffers for it. This is Dalton Trumbo 101, and modern audiences might be amazed that old timey movie stars like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) were promoters and victims of the blacklist, but generally we don’t find out the hows and whys. This film obviously is also a cautionary tale for our times, but modern audiences also might not understand that the ridiculous search for “commies” also reflects our post-9/11 need for constant “enemies.”

Bryan Cranston has had an amazing rise as an actor. In this latest step in his evolution, he takes on the lead role of Trumbo with relish and teeth, but needed to generate more shading for the character. Again, the story has a lot to do with this – there is not much difference to the Trumbo that emerges from the storm than the Trumbo before it happened. No matter what happened to the title character, Cranston plays him like a cigarette-smoking winner, and there was less a sense of who the man really was.

The screenplay – adapted by John McNamara – is also highly glossy and romantic, without giving context to the times Trumbo lived in. No matter what the circumstance, the character of Trumbo had the right piece of dialogue for it, or his allies always did the right thing. Although Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas are the white knights in breaking up the blacklist, they are played – especially Preminger – close to a level of parody, as if they weren’t real men. This was entertaining, but lent no perspective to the how they stuck their necks out.

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Image: Bleecker Street Media

Director Jay Roach does an exceptional job of recreating 1950s America, and does give it a sheen of almost surreal brightness, as if trapped in a hellish “Pleasantville.” The performances were all earnest, mostly to a fault – it has to be difficult to effectively take on legends like John Wayne – but if you’re interested in film history it’s cool to see it all come to life. The message in the film was basically correct – we cannot harass peaceful American citizens for their legal affiliations and beliefs, unless we want to destroy the founding principles of what this country is all about. It’s good to be reminded of that through popular art.

The essential story of Trumbo is one of guts, and eventual glory, all because one man refused to capitulate to fear. Life is short, and fear shortens it more. The David of a screenwriter against the Goliath of a paranoid government is – at it roots – an inspiration, because anyone can be targeted.

Bleecker Street Media presents Trumbo, opening in select markets through November, 2015. See local listings for theaters and showtimes. Featuring Bryan Cranston, Louis C.K., Diane Lane, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren and John Goodman. Screenplay adapted by John McNamara, based on a biography by Bruce Cook. Directed by Jay Roach. Rated “R”