January 19, 2016

Being aware of the waspish word of mouth Trumbo received when it was released in the United States may have helped me see it, not as the missed opportunity it very clearly is, but as the inoffensive, entertaining biopic it ended up being. Like Carol and Brooklyn, which similarly lost themselves to a fan girls flit of fifties fashions – divorced from the politics and peculiarities of the day, the movie is more an aesthetic pleasure than an inciting watch.

It draws no parallels between the self-censorship of the entertainment industries, then and now. Between the demonising of certain sects and creeds in the name of patriotism. Or the line between an artist’s politics and their work.

It’s wholly unoriginal, uninspiring and underdeveloped.

But it zip-lines us through one of the darkest chapters of Hollywood’s history- in an array of charmingly archaic performances, that are as loud and colourful as the costumes, as un-nuanced as its storytelling and as limited as its scope.

Dalton Trumbo (Brian Cranston) was first and foremost a family man, then an acclaimed screenwriter and finally a card carrying communist. This is the sliding scale that guides the movie, as it charts his fall from his pontifical high horse as Hollywood’s highest paid storyteller, when he refuses to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in their witchunt for communists working in the entertainment industry.

Thrown in prison, one of ten screenwriters to suffer such a fate, he’s released when a friend cracks and names names, leaving him blacklisted from working in the industry he once ruled.

And so, ever the enterprising fella, he finds work writing schlock under a nom de plume, all the while landing two Oscars for his –uncredited- work on Roman Holiday and The Brave One.

Jay Roche is better known as the director of the Austin Powers trilogy, but his craft is shown in a better light on political teledramas Recount and Game Change. He mashes both elements together here in a film that is an enjoyable one to be enveloped in and is not wholly devoid of point. 

But he shows no interest in getting to grips with the climate of the day and the shit storm it rained down upon once solid work relationships, when colleagues were asked to out the political affiliations of colleagues.

He has no interest in contrasting Trumbo’s heroism with his hucksterism, his artistic process with the effect writing assembly line muck has on his psyche or homelife, besides the odd vignette.

Instead we are given a string of pleasing performances that spell out the a-z of Trumbo’s story, a reeling in the years spiel that gives us a string of old school stars (Kirk Douglas, John Wayne) brought to life, plenty of glamor and some rose tinted hardship. 

Among the standouts are Helen Mirren, who does her best Joan Crawford impression as the boo hiss gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper. Parading about in fantastic hats and clicking stiletto-like barbs, she yet manages to give Hedda a proper motivation, beyond just being a thundercunt.

John Goodman is a hoot as a B- Movie producer who keeps Trumbo in whiskey and cigarettes while blacklisted and Louis CK is the strongest as a composite of the other men on the Blacklist.

Cranston is fine, memorable even, as the man himself, if only to contrast it with his performances in Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle.

But nothing in this competent telling of a worthy tale, ever rises above after-school special. Watch it with lowered expectations and it might just surpass them.


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