Directed by: Jay Roach
Premise: Based on real life events, Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Canston) is blacklisted during the Red Scare, preventing him from working in the film industry.
What Works: Trumbo takes place in the midst of the Cold War, beginning in the late 1940s and extending into the early 1960s. The filmmakers do an effective job of putting the audience into that time period and especially the Hollywood studio system and the climate of fear that pervaded the Cold War era. The Hollywood Blacklist was an especially important feature of that period and the filmmakers convey how and why it happened and the mechanics through which blacklisting was carried out. As with any historical drama, the events of the past must have some relevance for viewers in the present. Sometimes that rationale is a universal aspect of the human experience and in other cases the story draws parallels between a past event and our own time. In the case of Trumbo, both rationales are in play. The movie has a general appeal as an underdog story of a man and his family outwitting powerful institutions but its appeal is also specific and the Red Scare parallels contemporary concerns about terrorism. The connections are made bluntly but it gives the story some added urgency. Despite taking on a dark chapter of American history, the filmmakers approach Trumbo with a rather light touch. Director Jay Roach got his start with the Austin Powers films and later graduated to docudramas like 2012’s Game Change. He brings a sense of the absurd to the Blacklist that is appropriate to the subject matter. Trumbo moves along at a fast pace and it’s always enjoyable and frequently very funny. A lot of that humor is provided by Bryan Cranston’s performance as Dalton Trumbo. Although he tends to chew the scenery, the part calls for wit and intelligence and Cranston is a wily presence who is always engaging even when the character is difficult and coarse with his family. Trumbo also features some notable supporting performances by Helen Mirren as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Louis C.K. is surprisingly effective as Arlen Hird, who is a composite character of several real life screenwriters who were blacklisted alongside Dalton Trumbo.
What Doesn’t: It’s to the movie’s benefit that it’s so funny because Trumbo is also very preachy. The filmmakers clearly have Dalton Trumbo’s side on this and it’s hard not to; the Blacklisting era was a shameful period in both Hollywood and American history and the way people were persecuted during this time was unbecoming of a free and democratic society. That said, Trumbo gives its lead character a pass. There is an inherent tension in the way the film portrays Trumbo. On one hand, this was someone who was a member of the Communist Party, espoused communist platitudes in his life and work, and in fact wrote for communist outlets. The moviemakers set up the drama as an underdog story in which Trumbo fights for what he believes in and outfoxes both the studio system and the rabid anti-communist forces. However, in the many scenes in which Trumbo and his allies espouse their ideals, they come across less as communists and more as socialists or even left-leaning capitalists. This tension was true of Trumbo both in real life and as a character in a dramatic film; he claimed to be a communist but he enjoyed the fruits of capitalism. Therein lies the problem of this movie; it casts Dalton Trumbo as a hero for standing up for his communist ideals and simultaneously distances itself from Trumbo’s actual beliefs. Trumbo presents us with an unstated question: is it right for society or an industry to ostracize someone because of his or her political beliefs? That’s a complicated question but the filmmakers of Trumbo seek to simplify it or ignore it.
Bottom Line: Trumbo has the potential to be a complex portrait of the juncture between entertainment and politics but the filmmakers settle for a straightforward man against the institution story. As that it works and Trumbo is a very enjoyable movie.
Episode: #539 (April 26, 2015)