Saturday, 6 February 2016

Film Review: Trumbo (2015)

© Entertainment One | Source: Hitfix

USA; 124 min.; drama, biography, period
Director: Jay Roach
Writing: John McNamara; based on the biography Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Cook
Cinematography: Jim Denault
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Elle Fanning, Alan Tudyk, David James Elliott, Dean O’Gorman, Stephen Root, John Goodman

“Friends? What friends? Who the hell has the luxury of friends? I’ve got allies and enemies. There’s no room for anything else.” – Dalton Trumbo

The early Cold War period is not only the time in which the USA fought the Soviet Union in a proxy war far away in Korea. It is also the time in which they heavily prosecuted their own people right at home. Men and women who were suspected of favouring socialist views and communist doctrines found themselves indicted, imprisoned, shamed, blacklisted, sometimes even deported. McCarthyism scarred lives, destroyed careers and endangered one of the pinnacles of modern democracy: the freedom of speech.

Jay Roach’s biopic Trumbo tells the story of one of those men who suffered under a regime dominated by oppression and the Red Scare. In the film, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a celebrated Hollywood script writer, is under scrutiny for his passionate support of organised labour and his membership in the Communist Party of the USA. When summoned in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned about his political views, Trumbo refuses to answer and, in 1947, is convicted for contempt of Congress. Blacklisted after an eleven-month prison term, he has a hard time finding work and keeping his family afloat. Yet, continues to try.

Let me state right away, Trumbo is definitely flawed. Attempting to depict both a significant historical era and the personal struggle of a talented writer and dedicated family man, the film hardly moves beyond the surface. We see a man up against a tyrannical regime, we see a father working his butt off trying to earn money for his wife (Diane Lane) and three children (Elle Fanning, amongst others), we see a man facing betrayal by the hand of a very good friend. There’s a pretty basic formula at work here, guiding us through cornerstones of Trumbo’s life story, channelling some soapy drama, teary eyes and tenacious defiance while doing so. The characters fall rather flat, and an effort to explain McCarthyism rests on pointing out that everybody is plainly hysterical and nuts. Not to say that this isn’t true at its core, but a more in-depth look at the machinery behind this malicious political agenda would have been nice and could have helped to elevate the film out of triviality.

Despite the overly simplistic approach, however, I can’t claim that I didn’t enjoy Trumbo. While its triviality prevents the film from really gaining ground, it also offers a rather engaging 101 on the McCarthy era and its influence on Hollywood. The reason why I say ‘engaging’ is that I found myself perfectly intrigued by the way in which the film brings the classic movie industry of the 1940s, 50s and 60s to life. The set and costume design is lovely. Characters such as John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) appear. The use of fictional as well as actual radio and movie footage gives the whole thing a documentary style and evokes Hollywood greatness. For example, the voices of Lucille Ball and Gregory Peck are featured, and scenes from Roman Holiday (1953) and Spartacus (1960) incorporated. Combined with the at times vivid editing, the film boasts a rich and energetic atmosphere that is fun to watch.

Besides, the cast manages to move beyond the platitudes of the script and deliver memorable performances. Cranston’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Trumbo carries the film through a bumpy script. He brings a loveable, slightly neurotic charm to the character, presents wit and passion with ease and has me invested in his journey from start to finish. Helen Mirren shines as fancy-hat-wearing, gossip-spreading Hedda Hopper. A character that could have easily been a mere evil-minded broad becomes a complex, classy, quick-witted evil-minded broad in her capable hands. She spices up the screen every time she’s on it. Furthermore, John Goodman delivers a fun stint as foul-mouthed B-movie producer Frank King, Louis C.K. adds some dry humour as fellow blacklisted screen writer Arlen Hird, and Michael Stuhlbarg steals the show as (apparently historically inaccurate) treacherous actor Edward G. Robinson.

Story- and character-wise Trumbo keeps things very much on the lighter side. It’s thanks to the atmospheric execution, dedicated cast and witty one-liners that the film makes for engaging and entertaining popcorn cinema after all. Trivial it may be, but never incomprehensible or alienating. In the end, Dalton Trumbo and his spirit of defiance against a ramshackle political system resonate strongly.


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