Paying tribute to an influential predecessor is an understandable—even admirable—artistic impulse. But here’s the catch: honoring someone by doing the very thing they had mastered inevitably invites comparison. This is where Trumbo, a biopic about legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo of Roman Holiday and Spartacus acclaim, falls short of its target. It is a good film—but not nearly as good as one that Trumbo himself would have written.
The film opens with Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and his crew of fellow entertainment industry big shots garnering contempt with their openly communist, first amendment rhetoric. As McCarthyist sentiment gains nationwide traction, these outspoken “Hollywood Ten” attract the animosity of the House Un-American Activities as well as the Motion Picture Association of America. Shortly after signing a contract that made him the world’s best-paid screenwriter, Trumbo is put behind bars for contempt of Congress. The rest of the film follows his battle against the “Hollywood blacklist” and its boycott of politically controversial writers, directors, and actors—a grueling fight that would test him as a writer, leader, friend, husband, and father.
Cranston’s performance as Trumbo is steadfastly charming, even in moments of humiliation and rage, but it is the supporting characters who often steal the spotlight. Louis C.K. as Trumbo’s fellow screenwriter-Communist and close friend Arlen Hird is both funny and poignant as the down-to-earth foil to Trumbo’s bombast (“Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled into a rock?”) as well as the everyman to Trumbo’s extravagant genius. Meanwhile, Helen Mirren shines and scathes as Hedda Hopper, an influential anti-communist columnist who brings comedy with every piece of witchy headwear and chills hearts with the delivery of every unabashedly evil line.
The supporting characters also act as bridges for Trumbo to address other issues of the era. We see the inequality of wealth distribution through Arlen and the outrage over racial tensions through Nikola (Madison Wolfe as a child, Elle Fanning as a teenager), Trumbo’s precocious daughter who passionately participates in the Civil Rights movement. Both issues are addressed through the memorable Virgil (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a black prisoner who, in just a handful of scenes, mocks the writer for his racist presumptions and unearths many of Trumbo’s snobberies.
Yet while Trumbo succeeds in breadth, it struggles with depth. Conflicts, and not just the sociopolitical ones, are dabbled in then glossed over. Occasionally Trumbo’s hypocrisies are pointed out by other characters, notably Arlen, but these moments of tension tend to conclude in a pithy Trumboism. We are made aware of Trumbo’s ironically luxurious lifestyle given his communist beliefs, but Trumbo himself argues something vague about how the rich man has the cunning of Satan, without at all addressing how this is logistically applicable. The scene ends, unresolved, with Cranston’s witty smirk.
The same goes for Trumbo’s problems at home. Since the film establishes early on that he values his family above all else, it follows that his struggles on the home front would provide the emotional boiling points and key character revelations of the film. This is not the case however, thanks to the film’s unsteady pacing. As Nikola matures quickly (with an unsettlingly conspicuous growth spurt that, after Trumbo’s 11-month absence, involves switching to an actress six years older) into young adulthood, her dynamic with her work-obsessed father grows shaky. Likewise, Trumbo’s supportive wife Cleo (Diane Lane) begins to disapprove of his writing-parenting balance. Yet whenever the pot begins to get truly stirred, the screenplay swoops in to save Trumbo’s character with a sudden bout of self-awareness that at best feels rushed and at worst totally anticlimactic.
In a later scene, a director collaborating with Trumbo (Christian Berkel) says: “You write every scene brilliantly, and I will direct unevenly.” Herein lies the danger of making a film about filmmaking — everything you say can and will be used against you. Whether screenwriter John McNamara failed to be consistently brilliant or Joy Roach’s direction was overly uneven is up for debate. But either way, Trumbo, despite strong performances and occasional virtuosity, is no Trumbo-level masterpiece.
Trumbo is rated R for language.