Cinematic Releases: Trumbo

Andrew got a sneak peek at the Bryan Cranston starring biopic of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

I''m writing up a memo on blue meth.
Dalton Trumbo remains one of the most important Hollywood screenwriters who ever lived.  Not just for winning two Academy Awards for Best Screenplay but largely for being the first blacklisted screenwriter to effectively break the House Un-American Activities Committee stranglehold imposed by the system on Hollywood types suspected of affiliation with the Communist party.  Cited as one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted in 1947 after contempt of Congress for refusing to testify to HUAC's investigation of Communist influences in the film industry, Trumbo served as both the poster child for fighting back against the blacklisting by continuing to work through pseudonyms and speaking for an entire populous of people who wrongfully faced termination, ostracizing and even jail time for suspicion of affiliation with Communism.  It was a grave time to be in Hollywood and no one felt and fought it harder than Trumbo did.  Trumbo continued working incognito through pseudonyms and assigning credit to other writers, with two of his screenplays for The Brave One and Roman Holiday winning the Academy Award despite his inability to put his name on them.  It wasn't until Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus and Otto Preminger's Exodus that Dalton Trumbo was finally able to put his name on a screenplay credit, effectively ending the blacklisting once and for all.

Naturally when I learned a film version of the writer-director of Johnny Got His Gun with Bryan Cranston in the titular role was being made, I couldn't help but get excited.  As it stands, there's a great central performance by Cranston who gets all the nuances, cigarette smoking, crusty voice and cool wit of Trumbo down pat.  If there's an actor's movie out right now where the appeal lies more within the lead performance than it's own solidarity as a movie, it's this one.  Cranston will likely get an Academy Award nomination for his work in what is otherwise a star studded HBO television film that got bumped up to theaters.  Given the film's director Jay Roach (also responsible for things like all three Austin Powers movies and Meet the Parents) and Bryan Cranston have reteamed for the Lyndon B. Johnson HBO movie All the Way, you have to wonder whether or not Trumbo was originally intended for theatrical release.  Also telling is the inclusion of television screenwriter John McNamara's screenplay, which is a solid effort that just feels short of theater presence with textbook framing and adherence to the formulaic approach to biopics.  Where Trumbo works really well is how it depicts all the hula hoops Trumbo jumped through to continue working in an industry that has all but exiled him.  Where it falls short involves the bickering which arises when Trumbo enlists his family members to assist with the delivery of screenplays to prospective buyers.  

It was not me!! It was Pinkman!
For the most part it is good with a solid cast including a slim John Goodman who once again cleans up shop with a baseball bat (The Big Lebowski, anyone?), Helen Mirren as a wicked gossip columnist and arch-rival of Trumbo, David James Elliott woefully miscast as John Wayne and Michael Stuhlbarg as a sort of Edward G. Robinson lookalike.  Of the cast, only Bryan Cranston really becomes his character with everyone else having to say their characters' names to remind us who they are.  

The story of Dalton Trumbo deserves to be told and those keen on the behind closed doors drama of the Red Scare which turned the Golden Age of Hollywood inside out will find both historical fact and fiction here.  If you really want to come away feeling like you know Dalton Trumbo, my friendly recommendation would be to check out the 2007 Peter Askin documentary Trumbo, which serves as an excellent overall presentation of the man's life and all the hardships brought against him during arguably the darkest period in Hollywood history.  What we have with the new feature film version is a decent if not incomplete portrait of the man filtered through the made-for-TV machine with a great performance keeping it from fading into mediocrity.  


-Andrew Kotwicki

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