There are many ways to fight a war. At first glance, hounding successful Hollywood screenwriters seems an odd approach. That didn’t stop the House Un-American Activities Committee going after the red menace with demented fury. Freedom, it turned out, could only be preserved by imprisoning and later blacklisting these sinister scribes, labelled the Hollywood Ten. Trumbo, as the title suggests, focusses on Dalton Trumbo, a prodigious and quite brilliant screenwriter who lost his career, and later clawed it back one battle at a time. Thoroughly entertaining for long spells, Jay Roach’s film struggles through the downturn, undone by an urge to go big at every occasion.
This is exemplified in Bryan Cranston’s performance. He worried beforehand that his version of Trumbo might slip into caricature, and it frequently does. Not that he isn’t great value even when hamming it up. A rambunctious, erudite man, the Trumbo known to many in Hollywood would never shrink from an argument. Cranston, existing in a world of squinting, lip puckering intensity, brings this out with ornery flair.
Hitting every comic beat, his constant desire to be ‘on’ drowns out moments of introspection. Ironically enough, John McNamara’s screenplay diagnoses the problem in a conversation with Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel). Frustrated at the German director’s persistent pursuit of screenplay perfection, Trumbo counters that if every page is brilliant it becomes monotonous. That same lack of variation hampers a biopic with an easy flow of laughs and little emotional impact.
There’s a glossed over ambiguity at the heart of Trumbo. Is he a committed Communist activist fighting for free speech, or is he an unfairly blacklisted writer trying to restart his career? On one rare occasion, Arlen Hird (Louise C.K.) puts this question to him directly. No clear answer is forthcoming, a major problem for a film keen to deal in absolutes. This flows over into other areas. Overproduced to within an inch of its life, every set is such a perfect replica it becomes unreal, every fade from black and white to colour a transparent gimmick.
To an extent it doesn’t matter. The story underpinning Trumbo is just too damn good. This is a man who stood atop his profession before slumping into an anonymity that still saw him manage two Oscar winning screenplays (Roman Holiday and the The Brave One) before breaking the blacklist with Exodus and Spartacus. This was a man who shopped his services to a trash merchant (played with great panache by John Goodman), setting up a covert script factory from his own house. This is even a man spoiling to go toe to toe with the Duke (David James Elliott) himself, unwilling to let John Wayne bully him into submission. If Cranston goes overboard, he does so with undeniable style.There’s a surfeit of talent standing by as well. Helen Mirren is given a seemingly thankless task as tabloid hack Hedda Hopper, ruthlessly seeking the extermination of all communists from Hollywood. With zero motivation to work with, she turns in a crackling performance of arch one liners and droll threats. And a rather impressive line in hats. Michael Stuhlbarg is also on good form as Edward G. Robinson, the Double Indemnity actor who eventually named names to work again. The home front is less effective. Diane Lane is allowed a brief spot of juggling and a lot of justifying as his wife, while Elle Fanning who plays his daughter Nikola has to act as a crude reminder of priorities.
It’s left to Louis C.K. to show what could have been. It’s only his scenes that hint at something more, both in the Hollywood Ten’s plight, and in Trumbo himself. The rest is loose suggestion and half-formed thought. Take the bottle of prescription drugs Trumbo is knocking back in times of struggle; it’s a trope given screen time and swiftly forgotten when a shinier toy comes along. There’s far too much sloppiness going on, far too much reaching for the quick win. Trumbo should have played the long game a little more. Then there might have been something beneath the fun.