We’ve all seen films like Trumbo a dozen times. Glossy Hollywood films about America’s past that talk of some shameful part of their history but do so in a way that is very clean and safe. These are films that are good but not great. These films give actors scenery to chew but give the audiences nothing to remember by the end. Trumbo opens as Suffragette does; with white text on a black background setting the scene and with slow fades in between. The subtext here is that what you are watching is important and so should be instantly respected and eventually rewarded with golden statues come awards season.
Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is a screenwriter and a communist at a time in America when being a communist would soon get you called in front of congress and banned from working for any major studio. Trumbo was, so we are told, the greatest screenwriter of his generation. The film covers decades of Trumbo’s life as he goes from his career peak to being put on the Hollywood blacklist and then fighting to continue writing to support his family and show that without the communists there would be no screenplays.
This is not the proudest chapter in America’s story so it at first glance seems like a brave and worthwhile film to make. Sadly the film that has been produced is simultaneously theatrical and mundane. That’s not to say it hasn’t been made without skill. Every set and costume is made to exacting period detail and every scene is littered with witty one liners and the best in supporting character actors. John Goodman, Alan Tudyk, and Louis C.K. are particularly enjoyable but eventually the short functional scenes in which someone delivers some exposition and another counters with a quip become tiresome. Elle Fanning is particularly good as Trumbo’s daughter as she brings probably the only human element to the film while Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife is life to just smile from the sidelines.
As for Cranston himself; he brings to mind part of what made Breaking Bad so great, but in the worst way. What Cranston could do so well was make it clear when his character Walter White was himself acting. His performance there had to layers; a level of artifice on top of the real character he was playing. Sadly in Trumbo we only get the top layer of pretending as if Cranston is playing an actor playing Trumbo. It is all caricature and no character. The result of this is that when bad things happen to Trumbo you don’t care as much as you should and you are infinitely aware that you are not watching something real. This film does not immerse you in its world but keeps you at arms reach.
Trumbo is not a bad film. Yes it could lose 30 minutes from its runtime but the film is certainly enjoyable and had me chuckling throughout. The story itself is also interesting but once the film was done no part of it was racing through my head the way the best films do. With films like Trumbo about an important subject the films themselves want to be treated as important. As Trumbo finished it was begging for applause and some of the press audience dutifully applauded but frankly it didn’t really deserve it. Just because a film is about admirable people doesn’t make that film automatically admirable itself.
Trumbo is in cinemas now.