Bryan Cranston is a treasure. Don’t forget that fact. As blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, he whirls his cigarette (like him, a captive in an ornate holder), sitting in still bathwater, raving about the inadequacies of American political structures in that manic brilliance that he so finely honed playing Walter White. That Trumbo is the brand of all-inclusive biopic that’ll leave you pining for less is disappointing but it doesn’t discount Cranston leading man prowess or make his performance any less tasty.
Weighing in at over two hours, Trumbo is penned by TV writer John McNamara and directed by Jay Roach (of Meet and Parents and Austin Powers fame) and the weird marriage that comes from this material and those creators feels the strain of that 124 minutes. Roach directs without too much distinction, his comedic sensibilities have been tamped down to digestible, human levels so that Trumbo packs more laughs than the traditional biopic, even when some of its comedy feels strained.
With a cast that includes Louie C.K. and Alan Tudyk as straight-faced, mostly dour purveyors of social justice, the overwhelming sense of Trumbo is that a bunch of comedians came together to make something serious. Much like every time James Franco makes a film (his upcoming directorial effort features Danny McBride and Seth Rogen in a Faulkner adaptation), Trumbo often feels like ingredients mixed haphazardly. But through the haze, Cranston shines.
Trumbo begins back when Dalton Trumbo was an acclaimed screenwriter and noted Communist. He’s seen picketing for his fellow man and distributing pamphlets at Red Scare rallies before landing himself and his fellow screenwriters’ community on the feared blacklist. With a Republican dominated Supreme Court and social pressure pulsating through the states at the hands of Joe McCarthy, Trumbo and his fellow writers find themselves jailed for contempt of Congress. Allegedly, being a Communist was tantamount to being a spy and, well, you know how we deal with those.
As more and more of Hollywood’s most versatile talents find themselves on the wrong side of the red scare, Trumbo and his legion of freelancers take on assignments as anonymous writers working for B-movie baron Frank King (John Goodman). Hiding in the shadows, Trumbo wins not one but two Academy Awards for his writing, though neither statute was engraved with his actual name (at least not until after all this Communist business was settled.)
It’s a shame that Trumbo kind of peters along unceremoniously because the social climate of 1950’s Hollywood is fascinating, though only thinly realized here. Michael Stuhlbarg excels playing a cowardly actor (when does he not excel?) and Helen Mirren has fun sinking her teeth into despicable real-life antagonist Hedda Hopper, who openly aided McCarthy is “outing” Hollywood communists, but there’s just not quite the necessary oomph to make the performances pop or the narrative gumption to help it stick out as anything particularly special.
CONCLUSION: ‘Trumbo’ is a fine biopic, not lacking in depth so much as imagination. Bryan Cranston is in top form as the titular blacklisted screenwriter though he’s mostly let down by an only periodically engaging feature.