By: Mark Barber
Jay Roach’s Trumbo resembles so many “awards season” films. It’s a mildly politicized, star-studded historical drama that wants you to think it’s more important than it is. Ultimately, Trumbo lacks ambition and relevance, and feels little more than a weak attempt to pander to Academy voters.
Trumbo follows its namesake, famed Hollywood screenwriter and “notorious” Communist Dalton Trumbo (writer of such famous Hollywood films such as Roman Holiday and Spartacus) as he tries to make ends meet for his family after being blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 40s and 50s. The first half sets up a political conflict between Trumbo’s political ideology and the overwhelming anti-Communist sentiment at the time, resulting in his imprisonment after a botched attempt to constitutionally undermine Congressional hearings led by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. The second half more or less deviates from this trajectory, opting for the more personal conflict of Trumbo being unable to find work.
Trumbo’s Communist leanings feel, at best, marginalized and sanitized. Screenwriter John McNamara is more interested in the contradiction of the character, as a man who enjoys the benefits of dominant society as a major player in Hollywood. The second half plays this out by showing Dalton Trumbo fall from grace, having to sell his California ranch and moving into – based on the character’s reactions – a lower-class home. But, nothing visually suggests financial hardship for the Trumbo family.
McNamara’s screenplay is unsatisfyingly vague and littered with far too many bland clichés to be truly compelling. Scenes are set-up for bigger conflicts that never happen (a scene between Trumbo and a black prisoner played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje suggests that racial issues will become an important plot point later on, however Trumbo’s daughter’s role in the Civil Rights Movement never really goes anywhere), and characters are introduced to fulfill certain clichés (a miscast Louis C.K. plays a fictional screenwriter friend of Trumbo’s who’s only purpose in the film is to follow cancer tropes).
Like many films this season, Trumbo sacrifices a perfectly good political narrative in order to accumulate as many golden statues as possible. Certainly, Trumbo is well-acted, and Bryan Cranston carries the film with charisma. But, there are better, more compelling films out there than the safe and pedestrian Trumbo.
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Mark Barber: @WorstCinephile