We’ve seen this before. A bunch of respected actors jump on to the big biopic hoping for a sniff of Oscar glory. Those actors give reliably great performances and we know we’ve seen what we came to see. The writer(s) and director get most things right, historically, and the few things they do fudge, they probably work for the film dramatically. We are treated to an hour or so of the (usually male) main character kicking ass in one form or another and then something really bad happens. They overcome it and we cheer. We eat too much popcorn, give ourselves a stomachache, and go home. We’ve seen it before, so why bother seeing Trumbo, the latest from Jay Roach, whose credits include the Austin Powers trilogy and the first two Meet the Parents movies?
Simply put, we have to. American audiences need Trumbo as much as Trumbo needs our money (which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be materializing). Any good period piece uses the past to hold a mirror up to the present: when Akira Kurosawa adapted Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest into Yojimbo in 1961, he used Japan’s feudal period to bring life to his views on post-war capitalism and its effects on his home country; when Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953, he made a statement about the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee by depicting similar tactics utilized by Puritan settlers prosecuting accused “witches” in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1690s; Trumbo, in turn, makes use of that same committee and its activities, seen mostly through the viewpoint of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, to reflect the interplay of politics and entertainment in contemporary public life in the U.S.
But this is not exactly why we need Trumbo: the film’s plea for sanity, moderation, and circumspection begs to be heard by both sides of the political aisle. Whether the viewer sympathizes with the titular Trumbo’s much-further-left friend Arlen Hird (a composite of several of Trumbo’s fellow Blacklistees, brilliantly played by comedian Louis C.K.) or the one and only John Wayne (former JAG star and your grandma’s favorite actor David James Elliott) and his “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals” that whole-heartedly supports the Blacklist, Trumbo is, at its best, an entertaining cautionary tale filled with equal measures of wit, family conflict, and political drama.
Trumbo is also certainly not without flaws. For every great performance in the film, there is a bad one to balance it out. Elle Fanning gives an eye-opening turn as Trumbo’s daughter, Nikola, while Oscar-winner Hellen Mirren must have wanted out of the project from the moment she shot her first scene. As Hedda Hopper, the original Hollywood gossip columnist, her over-the-top boredom is properly comedic at times but it is when she is called to be sincere that the performance falls flat; Mirren seems to hate the character as much as the audience is meant to. Michael Stuhlbarg (best known for his starring role in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man) manages to make Edward G. Robinson mostly likeable while the above-mentioned David James Elliott’s weak impression of The Duke becomes more and more cringe-worthy as the film wears on. Roach’s direction, too, leaves much to be desired, as he and cinematographer Jim Denault flirt dangerously with the line between expressiveness and sloppiness in the interplay of light and shadow. At times, they attempt to achieve the look of the era’s classic films, such as the moody film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), that made Edward G. Robinson a star. Other times, there are shadows where they simply shouldn’t be, blocking out parts of the actors’ faces while adding nothing to the overall visual effect of the scene.
Despite these flaws, Trumbo is an important and worthwhile film overall that, at its best, uses the past to give us perspective on the present. It’s not exactly the Trumbo-penned Oscar winners Spartacus (1960) or Roman Holiday (1953), but look forward to hearing about Trumbo more than once or twice come February 28th, 2016.
Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C. K., Michael Stuhlbarg