Trumbo is as immaculately turned out, long winded and self-regarding as its subject. It somehow falls simultaneously into the two biggest traps of the biopic – It feels over long, and still skips over too many important details. It’s as shallow and broad as a puddle.
It follows the fall and rise of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a dapper, erudite and very successful communist screenwriter in post-World War Two Hollywood. His membership of the American Communist Party sees him (like many others) hauled before the House Un-American Activities Commission and sent to prison when he (unlike many others) refuses to name supposed communist ‘subversives’ working in the industry. Following his sentence, and subjected to a blacklist, he pays the bills by grinding out B-grade pictures under pseudonyms for the kind of company that has a bug problem and pays in cash. He works his way up to bigger and more successful films – his work wins two Oscars, most notably for Roman Holiday – until his credited work on Spartacus sees the blacklist broken and his return to the spotlight.
The film looks lovely (every costume, classic car and gulp of perfectly lit cigarette smoke is just so) and the cast is excellent. Louis CK is particularly wonderful as the perpetually put upon Arlen Hird, a fellow writer and (seemingly far more committed) communist, a man we suspect continues to chain smoke out of disappointment his first bout of lung cancer didn’t kill him. He gets the best line the film – lamenting the depths great writers like himself and Trumbo have plumbed in penning uncredited B-grade slop, he mentions that he knows Hemmingway – ‘If I walk into a bar in Paris I’ll get, maybe not my name, but I’ll get a wave.’ I would bet good money this line isn’t in the script; elsewhere the movies groans beneath the weight of measured, eloquent rhetoric.
The other difference is that it genuinely feels like something’s at stake for Hird (his family, his health, his hope for a better world) in a way it does not for Trumbo. We breeze through his prison stint, after which Trumbo’s beliefs and activism are never mentioned. His turn from doting family man to nasty, self-destructive absentee father and back is a box ticking exercise. His wife, Cleo (played by Diane Lane with the combination of doe-eyed maternal warmth and quiet stoicism mandatory for biopic wives) tells him to stop, and he stops. Never for a moment do we suspect he won’t. Late in the piece, he is described as a ‘former communist’. What caused him to move away from a movement for which he had sacrificed so much? The film doesn’t investigate. Similarly, the film barely touches on the potential conflict between Trumbo’s extravagant lifestyle and his beliefs, his feeing for the working class and the suspicion he’s never met a working class person. Trumbo approaches all its conflicts in this gossamer thin way – Communism is common sense centre-leftism, its opponents hysterical, hypocritical, moralistic hawks – and so fails as an historical drama as well as a character study.
When Trumbo give the last of his speeches, he looks back at the McCarthy era and says ‘it will do you no good to look for heroes or villains.’ This is dishonest. The film finds it’s hero in the opening frames, and never makes us see Trumbo as anything more interesting.