From the Archives: Trumbo review

From the Archives: Trumbo review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

A bit too simplistic for its own good, Trumbo feels less like the prestige picture it could have been and more like the Roach’s previous efforts for HBO films, and while there’s a sense of missed opportunity, there’s also the sense that this basic approach ultimately saves the film from feeling like Oscar bait. If only it were an HBO film, it would be Emmy bait of the highest caliber. Adapted by John McNamara from Bruce Cook’s biography, Trumbo tells the story of famed Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. A two-time Academy Award winner, Trumbo is perhaps most famous for penning the Kubrick epic, Spartacus. But Spartacus was made toward the end of Trumbo’s career, and a large body of his work was done in hiding. You see, Dalton Trumbo was an outspoken Communist, and the bulk of his screenplays were written while he was on the infamous Hollywood blacklist.

There’s a lot of story here, perhaps too much, and it hurts the pacing. Since Trumbo’s was a life so richly lived, there’s not a lot that even the most cold-hearted editor would be able to leave on the floor, and the whole of the film is a bit slap-dash as a result (I am also of the understanding that it was a very quick production). Even so, I can’t help but feel like there were areas where the film was cut down, as there are more than a few recognizable faces with little to no dialogue (see: Adam Scott in Black Mass).

Construction flaws aside, the film manages to be both breezy and scathing precisely when it needs to be. This is due to a delightfully evocative production design as well as some exceptional performances. Naturally, Cranston is giving his all, jumping from the stoic to the scary with all the chameleonic glory of Walter White. It’s a wonderful performance, and even though it will draw much criticism for the way he speaks – it’s as if every word he ever spoke was proofread for maximum impact – I get the feeling that this is exactly what the film wants. Trumbo was a writer, and he wrote at a time when backspace keys didn’t exist, and even the slightest hint of the subversive could land a man, especially a Communist, in some very deep water. So even though it may be heightened, his verbosity is genuine in function, and is often comically questioned by other characters – Louis CK’s Arlen Hird asks Trumbo why he says every word like it’s going to be “carved into a rock” – Why indeed? Because in many ways, it was.

The supporting cast ranges from good to great, the lesser performances more a victim of the film’s construction than of any individual’s efforts. There’s the aforementioned CK, who pretty much plays himself, but brings a lovable sadness to a truly “woe is me” character. He’s a taste of the modern in an old world, much like the Louie of his TV show is a man ahead of his time in a modern world.

The villain of the film is Helen Mirren, as the slimy actress turned gossip reporter, Hedda Hopper. She and her cohort, John Wayne, represent the rah-rah America side of things, and take it upon themselves to bring Trumbo and his Hollywood pals, aka “The Hollywood 10,” to justice for being members of the Communist Party. Yet, as evil as she seems, Mirren brings to the character a sadness that, it is suggested, stems from having aged out of stardom. Mirren, being one of the lucky film females to have avoided this unfair curse, gives a depth to the notion that Hollywood values a false purity, all the while trying to enforce a political “purity” of her own.

John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Diane Lane (and a veritable who’s who of “oh that guys!”) are all doing excellent work as well. Lane (as Mrs. Trumbo) gets to do some verbal sparring with Cranston that is positively electric, while John Goodman channels his Lawrence Woolsey of Matinee repute. Seriously, is Goodman ever not good as a blow-hard shuckster?

trumbo-postFor me, what elevated Trumbo into the realm of near-greatness was its relevance. As we approach our next big election year, the most political minded of us seem to revert into the world of black and white. There is good and evil, right and wrong, God and the Devil, and nothing in between. It’s a dangerous line of thought, and it often manifests in the stifling of a potentially revelatory discussion, traded in favor of unearned self-righteousness. We don’t value being right so much as we value the other guy being wrong. This is the world that Dalton Trumbo lived in. This is the mindset that caused a man to be thrown in jail for his political beliefs, even though he had committed no crime. This is the manner of thought which can ruin someone simply because they had the gall to ask the powers that be why. Most importantly, this is what Trumbo and The Hollywood 10 were fighting against, and cosmetic faults aside, Trumbo is a potent reminder of how important it is to ask why, and how essential it is to cultivate a world in which even the toughest questions merit consideration.

Trumbo opens today in Philly area theaters.

Official site.

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