I encountered a review of Jay Roach’s Trumbo the other day. It was critical both for being inaccurate and for presenting an overly favourable depiction of a man who was by all accounts notoriously hard to get on with and a bit of a pain in the arse.
I couldn’t possibly comment on this being relatively ignorant of the man and his life’s work, but turning this wholly negative, ‘thumbs-down’ review on its head for a moment, I would argue that Trumbo is in fact an excellent piece, for those very same reasons.
Jay Roach’s biopic, in spite of the relatively heavy nature of the subject matter, takes a fairly light-hearted, almost whimsical approach to the remarkable life of Dalton Trumbo; but lacking in substance and weight, it is not.
Strangely comic and almost cartoonish in his portrayal, Bryan Cranston nails his depiction of the infamous Hollywood screenwriter and political activist. Perhaps it’s Trumbo’s relentless chain-smoking or the flippant nature of his retorts, but there are shades of Groucho Marx about Cranston’s Trumbo, whilst Roach’s direction borrows slightly from latter-day Woody Allen in many respects, adding considerable charm and levity to the story.
That’s not to say that Trumbo by definition is a comedy. It isn’t.
Mid 20th century America was a tough place to hold ‘radical’ political beliefs. With the Cold War hanging over the nation like a bad smell and the trepidation of ‘what may be,’ American minds were rightly or wrongly preoccupied within a climate of fear and anti-Russian, anti-Communist sentiment.
For those like Dalton Trumbo, a man who held the civil rights and welfare of all American citizens as paramount to a well balanced and fair society above anything else, there was a very real sense that the net was widening and indeed closing in on them.
Trumbo, buoyed from signing a lucrative writing contract with Metro Goldwyn Meyer, a deal that would well and truly set him up for life, would soon find his life and career taking a serious downturn. Not just the American authorities was it, hell-bent on pulling the rug from beneath him, but the herd mentality of a media-fed public, lapping up the propoganda of the times, would also adopt the position of ‘defenders of the flag,’ unwittingly undermining their own freedoms by policing both the ‘commies’ and themselves in the process.
Trumbo and his circle of politically like-minded friends and confidants are predictably put through the wringer by the U.S authorities and shunned by those they had assumed were either friends or trustworthy acquaintances, with law after law passed deliberately to demonise them and their kind, ever further.
For the outed Communist Trumbo, a potential spell of incarceration is a very real possibility, but worse still, a blacklisting at the hands of the powers that be in Hollywood, spells potential career disaster.
Dalton Trumbo is however a canny customer, made of sterner stuff. Indeed, time will truly reveal the brilliance of the man and his ingenious methods of biting back at those who see fit to ruin him…
There’s a hell of a lot to like about Trumbo.
Bryan Cranston is terrific in the lead role, and his job is made that much easier being backed up most ably by a tremendous support cast:
Diane Lane is stoic, motherly and wonderfully feminine, portraying Trumbo’s long-suffering wife, Cleo. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the conflicted actor Edward G. Robinson, Louis C.K is Alen Hird, Trumbo’s close friend and fellow screenwriter of similar mind, whilst John Goodman weighs in, quite literally, with his take on the larger-than-life character, Frank King, the owner of a film company specialising in turning around God-awful films in record time, without any bullshit.
A special mention to Helen Mirren too. She portrays Hedda Hopper, a ‘Time’ journalist and critic as loathsome as she is influential, and a woman whose poisonous pen can and does make or break the best of them.
Trumbo, in spite of the at times sobering content and heavily political sub-text, positively jollies along. There’s a good pace to the film and a reassuring sense of quality about both script and direction, akin to a well-directed Spielberg yarn, and above all, the comforting realisation that everything’s in exceptionally good hands here.
There’s always a danger that biopics end up being dry, box-ticking exercises, but in Trumbo, director Jay Roach has got it spot on. He’s succeeded in revealing the life and times of one of America’s finest and most prolific screenwriters, Dalton Trumbo, not just as an interesting historical account, but as a properly engaging cinematic event, and that’s no mean feat.