Friday, February 26, 2016
TRUMBO (Jay Roach, 2015)
TRUMBO is the sort of bullet-pointed biographical profile that studios love to trot out at awards time. If the subject pertains to Hollywood itself, all the better. Whether the details of the showcased person’s life are familiar to the viewing public or not, they’ll be spelled out with all the subtlety of a grade school book report. In this instance the person at the story’s center was unfairly punished for his beliefs during a shameful period in which the industry and government behaved shamefully out of fear that Communists were working to bring down America from the inside. Despite the events and thematic richness in this tale of injustice, director Jay Roach and screenwriter John McNamara execute it with dutiful monotony.
TRUMBO begins in 1947 with screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) considered to be among the best at what he does in show business. Although he signs a studio contract to make him the highest paid writer in the system, he is conscious that others who work on films are not getting what he believes to be their fair share. A staunch defender of workers’ rights and a member of the Communist Party, Trumbo is visible in supporting his colleagues. Such advocacy draws a target on him from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren).
The pressure on Trumbo and fellow Communist screenwriters increases when the House Un-American Activities Committee holds hearings to root out the insidious red influence on the nation’s entertainment. Trumbo and those in the so-called Hollywood Ten refuse to answer some of Congress’ questions about their beliefs and are convicted for contempt. Trumbo serves a jail sentence and, like the others, is blacklisted from working again in the industry. To make a living he cannot take credit for what he writes. He persuades a friend to claim to have written his screenplay for ROMAN HOLIDAY. Steady, albeit low-paying, employment comes from Trumbo writing and rewriting B-movies for a small studio that never could have afforded him previously but is happy to utilize his services anonymously. Swimming in garbage screenplays that need polished, Trumbo enlists other blacklisted friends to assist him.
TRUMBO perks up somewhat when the writer connects with Frank King (John Goodman), the co-founder of King Brothers Productions. Goodman portrays the producer as a no-nonsense businessman in the business of selling nonsense. He holds no pretense in acknowledging that he’s bankrolling low-budget product, not art. To him Trumbo and the other ostracized writers merely represent fast, cheap, and high quality labor, with those characteristics in order of their importance. In a film full of commonly known and unknown people, he’s the only one to pop out from those playing classic Hollywood dress-up.
Cranston does solid but unremarkable work that is mostly the byproduct of the script than his acting abilities. TRUMBO lacks fire about the unfair treatment foisted upon him and his associates. Perhaps Trumbo didn’t have time to stew over that when he faced with the pressing need to support his family, but the film is missing the sense of conviction that helped to put the protagonist in these circumstances.