September 13, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “Trumbo”


It’s an unfortunate irony that TRUMBO, the story of one of Hollywood’s great blacklisted screenwriters, is undermined by an inadequate script.  It’s written by John McNamara, also the man behind NBC’s low-rated Aquarius, and viewers may find it difficult to figure out just what he and director Jay Roach had in mind, as they switch tonal gears lurchingly throughout and provide only a superficial account of the story they’re telling.

Dalton Trumbo (played in the film by Bryan Cranston) was a leading figure of the studio era, with dozens of scripts to his credit that included Kitty Foyle, A Bill of DIvorcement and A Guy Named Joe.  He was also a member of the Communist Party, at a time when the US and the USSR were allies against Germany.  (Not that his politics prevented him from spending his money lavishly in true capitalist style.)  As World War II came to a close and American eyes looked to the Soviet Union as the next great threat, those kinds of political ties could be fatal, especially if, like Trumbo and the rest of the “Hollywood Ten,” the target refused, when brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to provide the names of other Party members or “sympathizers.”  (Mark Harris’ Five Came Back provides an excellent portrait of the overlap between the end of WWII and the start of HUAC.)  So-called patriots like John Wayne and Hedda Hopper spearheaded pressure on the studios to reject any talent linked with communism, no matter how successful they were or how little their politics affected their work.

The blacklist lasted more than a decade and ruined hundreds of careers.  It’s a great if depressing story, one that’s been told many times before.  In the first half of Trumbo, it gets a cursory review, as we watch Trumbo and his colleagues go down the rabbit-hole while more practical liberals like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the fictionalized producer Buddy Ross (Roger Bart) give the committee what it wanted.  Trumbo is cited for contempt of Congress and is sent to jail for nearly a year.

The second half of the story veers weirdly into comedy, something that was done far better 40 years ago in The Front (which was written and directed by the blacklisted Walter Bernstein and Martin Ritt).  Trumbo starts writing schlock under pseudonyms for a studio run by Frank King (John Goodman, in full Argo mode), and enlists many of his friends in the enterprise as well.  Frankly, this section makes the blacklist look like it wasn’t so bad–although Trumbo has to work long hours (he takes benzedrine to keep up) and downsizes from his ranch to a middle-class house, he was apparently able to maintain a reasonable income; there isn’t any suggestion that his supportive wife Cleo (Diane Lane) even needed to work.  And it wasn’t just money:  while he was unable to get produced under his own name, Trumbo “won” two Academy Awards.  Toward the end of the 1950s, the competition between Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) over Trumbo’s time and whether he’d be credited under his real name is played mostly for laughs   Then in the final sequences, Trumbo puts on its self-important hat once again.

It plays as a mess.  For Roach, it appears to be an attempt to meld his Meet the Parents commercial tone with the political movies like Game Change and Recount he’s been doing for HBO, but to what end is never clear.  And all of that might have been acceptable if Trumbo had something new or perceptive to say about its subject, but it doesn’t.  Cranston is fine as Trumbo, but there’s nothing here to suggest the brilliance he’s brought to his signature roles on stage and the small screen.  The name-heavy supporting cast (Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk as fellow blacklistees, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper) is uneven in style as well:  while O’Gorman and David James Elliott (as John Wayne) simulate their famous characters, Stuhlbarg never attempts to look or sound like Robinson.  Lane is radiant as Trumbo’s wife, but she has exactly one brief moment where she’s presented as anything other than a wife and mother.  (It involves juggling.)  The closest thing to an emotional core Trumbo has is in his relationship with his teen daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning), but the script doesn’t have anything interesting to tell us about her, either.

Trumbo is moderately absorbing and professionally put together, and perhaps for a generation that knows nothing about the blacklist, it will prove worthwhile.  But it’s a waste of an important story, and of a very talented group.  In the film, we see that Trumbo insisted on maintaining his standards of craft even when he was working on garbage for the money; he would have been the first to insist on a rewrite of this script.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."