Many many times throughout the history of film have we seen the “underdog” movie. The one where our central hero/protagonist is up against absolutely impossible odds and has to continually fight an upward sloped battle against the films proposed enemies. We have even seen the “underdog” film in the political and historical context with such movies as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Good Night, and Good Luck, and The Majestic. The last of those three, starring Jim Carrey, has some parallels with this film in its final scene. (I recommend it, do watch it now!) Trumbo is of course one such biopic film, with the adaptation of events trying to strike an inspirational tone.
Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, one of the greatest screenwriters in the 1940’s, 50’s and onward, that was a member of the Communist Party of America during that time. Political opinions aside, this is a film about the incredible fight that Trumbo, along with other blacklisted Hollywood writers and filmmakers, made against the US Congress at that time. Congress was going after figures in Hollywood due to the access they had to recording devices. Trumbo believed that Congress’ condemning of him and his colleagues to be unjust, and in retaliation, he refused to cooperate in their investigation. This was just the beginning of a years long battle between the continued stance of Congress and those who found their names on the Communist Blacklist.
As in most biopic productions, there is a lot of background and historical information to be found in what was shown, but also in what was not. I’m going to focus on what was shown, just to be clear. What was shown is an astounding story of a man who refused to be persecuted for the beliefs that he possessed. He is presented here as a man of great mental fortitude, moral strength, and incredible dedication to a cause that often seemed fleeting. All of this requires an actor who can delicately balance the strength required in such a large scale political battle, along with the ever growing emotional stress of supporting a family at the same time; Bryan Cranston is absolutely the right choice of actor. With Breaking Bad, Cranston proved to everyone that he can be the leading man and his work in this picture only continues to show his ability to do so. He absolutely absorbs and owns the screen. There were a few moments during my screening that I absolutely forgot that I was in a theatre watching a film, and that very seldom happens to me. It was quite the surreal experience.
The movie presents Dalton Trumbo as a wrongfully indicted individual, and by the end of the film I absolutely believed that to be the case. What happened to Trumbo after his refutation of Congress’ hearings and investigations, was a contempt charge for his intentional avoidance of the Chariman’s questions as well as a mockery showing of the whole proceeding. Suffice to say Trumbo was fired, and Hollywood’s various studios began to take definitive stances on the blacklist: those stances being that no member of the Communist party, or individual placed on the blacklist, would be employed in any role in Hollywood. Upon his release, Trumbo went back to the only thing he knew best, which was writing. Except now he had to do so under different aliases and through a production company that was unconcerned about the political implications should the truth be uncovered. Trumbo got many of his colleagues work this way, and in addition to writing their own films, they had to edit the ones this studio already had. Trumbo, in order to support his family, was forced into a 16 hour work day, 7 days a week.
After a while, Trumbo was able to catch a break under these various aliases and over the years with critical acclaim coming to Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas, and Exodus starring Paul Newman, as well as a few others. It was the last two films that helped him escape the shadow of the blacklist due to the contributions of Kirk Douglas himself as well as the director of Exodus Otto Preminger.
Where the film tends to falter is in its execution. Even in the trailer you will hear a rather interesting mix of musical genres and that mix points to the overall flaw. Director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) cannot decide whether he wants this film to be a drama with a comedic moments, or a comedic satire with dramatic heft and that divide made way for somewhat of a staggered experience. That being said, I still recommend the film immensely. In spite of the unevenness I just pointed to, the comedy succeeds and the drama thrives, its when the two are put together that the failings become apparent.
At the end of it all, I think this is a film that many will find quite enjoyable. I think it can be found as inspiring in a multitude of ways, the one standing out to me being a dedication not to one’s fight, but to one’s craft. I’m a writer who loves to write, clearly, but even I couldn’t imagine the amount of perseverance necessary to write 16 hours a day/7 days a week. If you’re in search of a decent look at one of the most interesting and controversial periods of cinema history, Trumbo is a pretty great choice.