In his newest post-Breaking Bad move, Bryan Cranston took on the role of Dalton Trumbo, a classic Hollywood screenwriter who famously wrote Roman Holiday while on the Blacklist. Based on that one-sentence plot summary, you’d think Trumbo would have no trouble creating a compelling narrative. I mean, we’re talking about the Hollywood Blacklist, the persecution of (suspected) Communists, the censorship of art. And yet, Trumbo is hardly moving at all. In fact, it lacks any emotional power whatsoever.
Trumbo was put on the Blacklist in 1947 after his participation in the Communist Party led to an investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Trumbo refused to cooperate with any questioning, resulting in a year-long stint in prison for contempt, all of which is covered in the film. But, Trumbo was not alone in his rebellion against the government’s actions.
Trumbo was part of a group known as the Hollywood 10, and the film depicts him as a kind of ringleader who inspired the others not to cooperate. That’s all well and good, the movie is called Trumbo after all — the bottom line is that it’s a movie about one man, and one man only. What’s strange about the treatment of the Hollywood 10 in Trumbo is that the film does not even name all of them. Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, and Robert Adrian Scott — the nine other members of the Hollywood Ten — are either erased from the re-telling or little more than glorified extras. If you’ve seen Trumbo, you might be thinking that the name Arlen Hird is missing from the list — it’s not. Arlen Hird, as played by Louis C.K. in Trumbo, is a composite character created for the film. That’s right, instead of using the name of a real writer who was on the Blacklist, screenwriter John McNamara made one up.
The fictionalization of historical figures speaks to the complete incompetence of the screenplay. It is also extremely hypocritical. Trumbo ends with a rousing speech by the man himself, speaking on the injustices of the Blacklist and how it ended careers and lives, and yet the film doesn’t seem to value those real lives enough to name them in the film. It’s absurd.
Trumbo also suffers from a script too concerned with hitting certain key points in Trumbo’s career as opposed to how Trumbo felt about those key points, making the film feel like more of an animated timeline than a narrative. McNamara and director Jay Roach were unable to raise any emotional stakes throughout the film. The film makes a great effort to show Trumbo’s family life — with Diane Lane relegated to the one-note role of supportive wife Cleo — but fails to explore any kind of emotional tension for Trumbo regarding how his actions affect his family. When the character of Arlen Hird is introduced, he expresses concern about how a potential jail sentence could destroy his marriage and his children, yet they are barely brought up again. When his son does pop up again later in the film, it’s a miracle the audience even remembers him, let alone feels any empathy towards him. You’d think it would be impossible to make a dull, emotionless movie about the Blacklist, and yet, Trumbo succeeds.
The only shinning moments in Trumbo come courtesy of Alan Tudyk, who plays the later Blacklisted Ian McLellan Hunter, and Louis C.K.. Both actors bring a dry, comedic timing that adds dimension to the film — a feat considering how little screen time they were awarded. Tudyk, in particular, was a breath of fresh air every time he was on screen. Other cast members including Helen Mirren, Cranston and Lane gave perfectly respectable performances, but were not especially gripping, likely due to their over-written and stereotypical roles.
There is truly very little to like about Trumbo. Sure, the set design is lovely, and it’s full of gorgeous shots of cigarette smoke disappearing into the atmosphere (there is probably one scene in the entire movie where nobody is smoking). But, the bad strongly outweighs the good in Trumbo, making it a forgettable waste of good material.