Like Good Night and Good Luck before it, Trumbo takes on the country’s (and Hollywood’s) historical mistakes, but on a more personal level and with a bit more distance. It also tackles a character who is almost mythic in his intelligence and ability (at least as remembered and portrayed). And it all comes out with a clear message: Never tangle with a really good writer, they will end up running circles around you.
Bryan Cranston (Godzilla) transforms himself into the force of nature that is Dalton Trumbo. It is a great bit of mimicry and a solid performance. It is weak only in that John McNamara’s script glosses over so much of the uncomfortable aspects of his personality and life as he fought the Blacklist (a term, by the way, that Hollywood has reclaimed as the moniker for the most promising, unpurchased scripts every year). The story he spearheads is neither fully political nor fully personal, but more of an overview of events with personal events to tie it together. It works, but it isn’t wholly satisfying when you really look at it. Again, this is a script problem, not an actor issue.
Alongside Cranston, Diane Lane (Inside Out) gives us a great and supporting wife and Elle Fanning (Boxtrolls) a chip-off-the-block daughter. But outside the family is a wealth of talent on both sides of the battle. Louis C.K. (American Hustle), in particular, provides insight into the thinking of the time and a nice sub-plot. Alan Tudyk (Big Hero 6), Michael Stuhlberg (Hitchcock), Dean O’Gorman (Hobbit), and John Goodman (Monuments Men) provide additional political fodder and points.
Driving the darker side of the conversation is Helen Mirren (The Woman in Gold), who delights in her power, but who’s motivations remain a little suspect throughout. Her mustered army is general-ed by David James Elliott as a credible, if not a double for, John Wayne. Despite some late-story reconciliations and forgiveness, their stories do not shine a pretty light.
Watching this film, I was acutely aware of how relevant the issues and warnings of the past were today. It was also obvious that this film couldn’t have been made until recently as the very suggestions of the film would have flown in the face of a post 9/11, PATRIOT Act wielding and fearing public. Which, of course, would have made it all the more relevant. Good Night and Good Luck came out around then, and though it was noticed, it quickly vanished and was somewhat ignored; people weren’t ready yet to admit their folly. And, as we have now learned given the Snowden revelations, we probably should have listened more carefully. But with the current rising of fear of terrorism, it is a message worth repeating… often. If we forget who we are, we lose what we are trying to keep.
Who would have thought that Roach, the director of Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers could tackle such a politically charged subject with honesty and a wry eye to the present? Then again, he did take on the 2008 election in Game Change as well. It isn’t that he isn’t clearly a solid director, given his track record, it is just that there is some tough meat on the bones of Trumbo and he gravitates to tenderer cuts of the entertainment cow. However, his interlacing of original news and Congressional footage puts you right in frame of the period. Where that is challenging is where modern actors are portraying real people like Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, and Edward G. Robinson, to name a few. Such well-known icons being imperfectly copied, especially against a backdrop of real footage (or being Zelig-ed into the real footage) is distracting at times. I’m not sure he did the story service all the time.
This isn’t a brilliant film, but it is a film worth seeing for the performances and the cautions. It will particularly strike a chord with Hollywood, so expect to see at least Cranston and some of the production people called out for nominations.