Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Philosopher George Santayana’s oft-repeated quote hangs heavily over Trumbo. The film’s depiction of the US government’s willingness to flaunt fundamental rights in order to root out communists during the Cold War is incredibly prescient. Worldwide, the modern political climate is repeating old mistakes, as countries are as divided as ever, the demonisation of certain groups is on the rise, and essential human rights are seen as less and less essential by some governments.
And Trumbo is happy to hammer this message home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Starring Bryan Cranston in the title role, Trumbo is a biopic about the life of Dalton Trumbo, a Hollywood screenwriter from the 1930s through to the 1970s, and member of the US Communist Party. In the midst of the threat from the ‘Red Menace’, Trumbo is pulled up before Congress for allegedly inserting propaganda into his films, and is imprisoned for contempt of Congress after refusing to cooperate with the farcical proceedings.
Though fascinating plot-wise, the characterisation up to this point of the film lacks nuance, reducing the real-world complexities of the US during the beginning of the Cold War to a black-and-white good vs. bad situation. It’s not until after Trumbo is released that the film really finds its groove, and it’s here that Cranston is well and truly in his element.
Upon release, Trumbo and the rest of the jailed communist screenwriters are blacklisted, banned from working in Hollywood. Trumbo is forced to write absolute garbage under various pseudonyms for next to no money, just to keep his family afloat. And it’s here, when Trumbo becomes this tortured patriarchal figure, a role Cranston is no stranger to, where the film is most compelling. With financial pressure and questions of artistic integrity leading to strained relationships with his family and friends, the audience is treated to some gripping scenes where Cranston and his supporting cast go in for some top verbal sparring with those he gets on the wrong side of.
There is one scene in particular, where Trumbo gets caught up in an argument with fellow blacklisted screenwriter Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) that really illustrates just how much the career, financial and domestic difficulties have worn away at Trumbo’s integrity. There’s this vivid encapsulation of the idealism vs. pragmatism argument that runs throughout the film. Trumbo tries to convince Hird to join him writing garbage, so that they can work in defiance of their ban, and ‘win’, in Trumbo’s eyes. Meanwhile Hird isn’t afraid to ‘lose’, as long as he does so doing what he believes to be the right thing, fighting for his communist ideals.
Speaking of Louis C.K.’s character, C.K. himself is on point, as are much of the supporting cast, even despite this being well and truly Cranston’s movie. After amazing dramatic turns in American Hustle and Blue Jasmine, C.K. continues to prove how incredibly talented he is away from the stand-up stage, where he’s already one of the world’s best.
John Goodman as a money-hungry film executive is also fantastic, managing to make an audience sympathetic to and rooting for a guy who threatens to kill another man who threatens his supply of “money and pussy”. The same credit is due to the incredibly accomplished 17-year-old Elle Fanning, as Trumbo’s daughter Nikola. She proves the focal point of Trumbo’s decaying relationship with his family, and her verbal stoushes with her father really epitomise Trumbo’s own inner contradictions that he struggles to reconcile, and his failures in prioritisation and as a father.
The film gets a bit cute at times with some of its stitching together of archive footage and old movies with newly filmed material, drawing a little too much attention to where the edits are. Otherwise, the costumes, sets, and the film’s changing choice of colours throughout the decades it’s set in really draw you in to this world, as does the evolving score of Theodore Shapiro.
It’s probably not too shocking that subtlety and nuance isn’t a strong point for director Jay Roach, the man behind Austin Powers series and Meet the Parents. What he has done though is draw out some powerhouse performances from a stellar cast, and shone a bright light upon one of the more shameful periods of recent US history that few films have been willing to broach before.
Review by James Lamb
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