Can genius overcome its times? An overlong answer to this rhetorical, awards-season-appropriate question arrives in Jay Roach’s Trumbo, a biopic as wary of going for the jugular as it is—if you love Hollywood history—sufficient as easy entertainment. Like Roach’s Game Change and Recount, the film’s patina of relative apoliticism masks (or enables) its blandness of inquiry: The life of leftist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) allows for a star-studded CliffsNotes melodrama of the Hollywood blacklist, making obvious much about its titular hero’s embattled style of living, prison sentence, and struggle to achieve what we today call “work-life balance.”
Trumbo is introduced to the audience by his then-friend Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), who chides the screenwriter for putting too many “little sermons on citizenship” in his screenplays. Louis C.K. features as somebody named Arlen Hird, a composite of Trumbo’s “unfriendly” colleagues - some of whom would find themselves out of a job before the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings even started, simply for, say, attending an anti-Nazi rally back in the 1930s. Aside from this historical shorthand, Hird serves the narrative to exactly one purpose: haunting Trumbo as the latter’s Communist conscience, always at the ready to accuse the screenwriter of putting his own price tag above the Hollywood Ten’s inciting causes.
Beyond the psychic and professional costs of Trumbo’s refusal to name names before the HUAC, his ideology—both as a screenwriter and as a man—is addressed as flippantly as possible. As the sun twinkles drowsily above the man’s backyard hacienda, his daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning), asks if he really is a communist. Trumbo replies that she is too, as long as she’d be willing to split her lunch with a hungry schoolmate. It’s as heavy-handed as anything in Edward Dmytryk’s Tender Comrade, sure, but it’s also saccharine, witless, reductive. This, then, is how the film wants us to think of its storied hero?
By keeping Dalton Trumbo on the straight and narrow, the film saps his story of much of its power.
John McNamara’s screenplay is the opposite of subtle, its namesake surviving a decade’s worth of witch hunts one hokey-sounding diatribe and one-liner at a time—usually as scene punctuation. Cranston lends his custom world-weariness to Trumbo’s quips, but he’s ill-served by the actual words, which seem less like those of an embattled political thinker than a refrigerator-magnet legacy franchise. Hird embodies not just Trumbo’s conscience, then, but the screenplay’s as well. At one point, he has occasion to ask Trumbo: “Jesus, do you ever say anything that isn’t gonna get chiseled on a rock?”
McNamara zeroes in only on Trumbo’s mass-audience-friendliest breakthroughs: While blacklisted, two of his screenplays, for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, manage to win Oscars under other men’s names. The rest of the time, he cranks out scripts for B-picture mogul Frank King (John Goodman, never to miss an opportunity to wear suspenders and shriek at people), has run-ins with reactionary anti-communist gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren)—the closest Trumbo gets to evil personified—and meet-cutes with Otto Preminger (Cristian Berkel) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), both of whom will assist him in breaking the blacklist.
The film is, to its makers’ credit, dense with names, dates, and events, but by fixing Trumbo as an archetype and keeping him on the straight and narrow, they sap his story of much of its power. Trumbo’s 11-month 1950 prison term is covered in about five minutes, and Roach’s saga culminates with him breaking the blacklist when he writes Spartacus for Douglas in a pinch (in reality, it was one of the most taxing artistic battles of Trumbo’s career).
Were its makers up to the task, much about Dalton Trumbo could have made for fascinating, wayward complications in the film’s drama: the tension between his ideals and his opportunism (see the decidedly jingoistic screenplay for Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo), his Stalinist sympathies, his willful censorship of his own pacifist novel Johnny Got His Gun during World War II. Against what, in the break-neck dog-eat-dog culture of comminglings, loose alliances, and bitter feuds that was Golden Era Hollywood, did such a socialist worldview forge itself? Trumbo leaves these kinds of questions to the historians and journalists.