Review: Trumbo

Bryan Cranston stars as Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who is blacklisted in the 1940s by the House Committee on Un-American Activities under suspicion of being a Communist. Refusing to name names, Trumbo is essentially isolated within the industry and even serves jail time for contempt of congress. Among his chief opponents are powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Dame Helen Mirren) and red-hating man’s man John Wayne (David James Elliott). However, he is able to make a comeback of sorts via pseudonymous screenwriting and even winning a couple of Oscars during this time. Michael Stuhlbarg plays actor Edward G. Robinson, a noted liberal whose loyalty and support to Trumbo and his fellow ‘Hollywood Ten’ is severely tested under threat to his career. Louis CK plays Arlen Hird, who is actually a composite of five of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ members. Diane Lane plays Trumbo’s wife, Elle Fanning is Trumbo’s daughter, John Getz plays an a-hole Sam Wood (director of a couple of Marx Brothers films), Alan Tudyk is screenwriter Ian McClellan Hunter who agreed to front for Trumbo on “Roman Holiday”, while John Goodman and Stephen Root play the King brothers, B-movie producers.

A somewhat lightweight 2015 biopic from director Jay Roach (the “Austin Powers” trilogy, “Game Change”, and the terrific “Meet the Parents”) and screenwriter John McNamara (his first theatrical film screenplay after years of work on TV) manages to still interest and entertain so long as you don’t care too much about actors looking and sounding like their real-life counterparts. It bothers me a bit, though at least in the case of lead actor Bryan Cranston, I didn’t have a great idea of what Dalton Trumbo looked or sounded like prior to the film. Being that Cranston gets the lead role here, he has the benefit of having the meatiest part, and dead-ringer or not, it doesn’t take long for him to sell you on his casting (He looks more like Trumbo in the latter stages of the film). He gives a rock-solid performance that shows he’s more than just a TV actor (To be honest, I’ve never even seen “Breaking Bad” and I’m more a fan of his work on “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Seinfeld”). Meanwhile, Diane Lane is lovely in an underwritten part as Trumbo’s wife, and comedian Louis CK for me is a terrific surprise in a dramatic (and composite) part as one of Trumbo’s socialist acquaintances. I’ve been shocked to read that so many feel he was miscast here, as I think he’s the highlight of the film, in terms of acting. Dame Helen Mirren offers up as good a Hedda Hopper as Judy Davis in “Feud: Bette and Joan”, which was good enough for me at least. She’s easily having more fun than anyone else here. I also loved the smaller performances by a perfectly cast John Goodman and Stephen Root as a pair of hack B-movie producer brothers. John Getz doesn’t look anything like director Sam Wood, but he’s nonetheless a fairly easy sell as a pompous director. Dean O’Gorman makes a damn good stab at playing chiselled actor Kirk Douglas, looking at least a little bit like him and trying his best to capture the distinctive voice. My only real issue with him was that he looked far too puny to play the uber-masculine star of “Spartacus” and “The Vikings”, so I wasn’t entirely sold on him. Christian Berkel is just OK as director Otto Preminger, we don’t get enough of his infamous temper in my opinion. It’s not a dishonest portrayal of him, but it’s certainly the nicest and most even-tempered I’ve ever seen him depicted. Although I figured out who he was playing straight away, it also says a lot when you need to announce your name on more than one occasion as Berkel’s Preminger awkwardly does here. Still, I did like the scene where Trumbo attempts to manipulate both Douglas and Preminger for on-screen credit for both “Spartacus” and “Exodus”. Better performances come from Alan Tudyk and a perfectly cast Roger Bart as Ian McClellan Hunter and the frankly cowardly producer Buddy Ross, respectively. Through Bart’s excellent performance, you almost don’t hate the spineless weasel. Almost.

The actors playing arguably the two most famous faces here are a real mixed bag; Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, and David James Elliott as John Wayne. I guess Stuhlbarg is as much a likeness as Robinson as anyone likely could be, but at no point does he even try to sound like the inimitable character actor. He actually sounds more like Jimmy Cagney and doesn’t look too dissimilar to Cagney outside of hair colour. Robinson’s chief identifying quality was his voice (pretty much the vocal inspiration for Chief Wiggum on “The Simpsons”) so for Stuhlbarg to not even try, is a pretty big deal. I don’t want a one-dimensional imitation, but since the character itself has quite a bit of depth, that wouldn’t have actually been an issue. The character is actually really interesting here as written. Every story on this subject has that one guy who cowardly/selfishly ends up cracking and naming names, and Edward G. Robinson turns out to be that guy here. So far as I can tell the story checks out too, which is sad because he was one of cinema’s greatest character actors. Take out the fact that he’s specifically playing Edward G. Robinson and I can safely say that Stuhlbarg gives a good performance as a man who sold out his friends and politics to keep working and ended up largely fucking himself anyway. He’s seen as somewhat of a villain here, but not the biggest. That would be the double threat of Mirren’s Hedda Hopper and The Duke himself, John Wayne as played by David James Elliott. Yep, the guy from “JAG”. Playing John Wayne. Oh boy. If he were playing Rock Hudson, Clint Walker, or Sterling Hayden, Elliott might’ve nearly gotten a pass here. As is, he well and truly whiffs in the part, he doesn’t remotely attempt to look or sound like The Duke. Since he’s playing one of cinema’s most recognisable and beloved figures, it’s a very, very big problem. There’s a great bit where Trumbo puts Duke in his place over war service record, but Elliott is a walking stiff in the part and honestly could be playing just about anyone else except Wayne.

Despite some unconvincing performances and a rather lightweight treatment, this is still one of the more enjoyable films on this subject. If you can get past the miscasting in some cases, it’s an easy watch, especially for film buffs. I’d simply rather watch a documentary on Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten instead because I’m not sure a light and fluffy treatment of such a shameful period in cinema (and America) is the best approach. It works, just not spectacularly and maybe instead of Roach and McNamara it should’ve been handed to Martin Scorsese (or maybe George Clooney) and Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men”, “The Social Network”, TV’s “The West Wing”). Cranston isn’t all that much of a likeness in any way as Trumbo, but nonetheless acquits himself solidly because he’s a genuinely good actor. Louis CK, for his part, may have been robbed of an Oscar nomination in my view. Who knew he could act?

Rating: B-


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