Trumbo movie review - 'should be a terrific, angry film but isn’t, thanks to an over-egged desire to please'
Published 05/02/2016 | 08:00
Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo joined the Communist Party in 1943, when America was allied with the Soviets and you could just about get away with it.
In 1947, when Trumbo starts, his open embrace of radical politics was beginning to look like career suicide. That year, he became one of the Hollywood Ten — the group of Leftist writers and directors who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and found themselves blacklisted from film production. To pay the bills, they went underground for an entire decade, writing hackwork under pseudonyms, or letting colleagues take the credit, until America’s pathological fear of the Red menace blew over.
This grim period in the industry’s history should be the stuff of a terrific, angry film. But Trumbo isn’t, thanks to an over-egged desire to please. It’s too cartoonish — a sort of Punch-and-Judy-show rendition of a fascinating man’s professional crisis. You can see what attracted Bryan Cranston to the role: Trumbo was exceptionally articulate, clever and droll, and he never gave up the fight. These are plum ingredients for a star of Cranston’s versatility to cook with, and he’s won an Oscar nomination for Best Actor — he’s certainly overdue a nod, but this fussy performance is trying too hard.
The emotional core of the movie is Trumbo’s dogged survival. He sold his ranch in California, moved to Mexico with his wife Jean (Diane Lane), and got work on Poverty Row for straight-talking vulgarian producer, Frank King (John Goodman). Kirk Douglas threw Trumbo a lifeline when he commissioned a complete rewrite of Spartacus and let him take the credit.
By this point in the late 50s, the Academy had already garlanded the Trumbo oeuvre with two screenplay Oscars (for Roman Holiday and The Brave One) without knowing he’d written them. Because Trumbo never misses a blatant trick, script-wise, we get the suspense of these awards shows unfolding in the Trumbo family living room.
You could say Trumbo gets a lot of these tiny things right, but it’s the huge things that go badly awry.
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