Although Dalton Trumbo won two Academy Awards in the 1950s for Roman Holiday and The Brave One (both under fronts and/or pseudonyms), he’s best known as the screenwriter who adapted Spartacus for the big screen and for breaking the blacklist, an unofficial, but no less injurious list of writers, actors, and directors (and others) who rightly or wrongly, were associated with left-leaning politics. Some, like Trumbo, were “out” members of the U.S. Communist Party, a party they generally joined before or during the Second World War (Trumbo officially joined in 1943), while others were either left-leaning sympathizers or simply friends and thus guilty by association. Many, if not all were brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a government body with blanket subpoena power and the ability to hold anyone, regardless of their professional position or social standing, in contempt and thus potential jail time for non-cooperative witnesses.
Trumbo’s entanglement with the House Un-American Activities Committee functions as the pivot point for Jay Roach’s well-meaning, earnest bio-drama, Trumbo. As broadly played by Bryan Cranston, Trumbo’s brilliance as a screenwriter, not to mention the financial and social validation that comes with wealth (he was, for a time, the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood), also blinded him to the shifting political landscape. He initially saw him himself as immune from the power and reach of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he was wrong. As a member and leader of the “Hollywood Ten,” Trumbo sidestepped the committee’s demands to publicly confess his communist sympathies/membership and more importantly name names, citing the First Amendment as a shield with the expectation that a liberal-leaning U.S. Supreme Court would overturn any citation for contempt of Congress. He was wrong, eventually losing both his livelihood and his freedom (he served jail time).
The bulk of Trumbo’s running time focuses on a post-prison Trumbo as he tries, initially without success, to continue writing. With the blacklist in full effect for an entire decade, he’s forced to use fronts, friendly screenwriters who turn in his scripts as their own for a small percentage, but when that proves only sporadically successful, he’s forced to write under various pseudonyms for Frank King (John Goodman), a sleazy, cut-rate producer with an overwhelming love of the money Trumbo’s churned-out scripts can make him. Their partnership proves to be so successful that Trumbo, then and now probably one of the fastest screenwriters in Hollywood history (he could complete scripts in three days to two weeks), that Trumbo ends up finding employment for members of the Hollywood Ten, including Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), like Trumbo a left-leaning, communist sympathizer, but who, at least in Trumbo: The Film, functions as foil and conscience to Trumbo’s ever-evolving plans.
Roach doesn’t shy away from the short- and long-term consequences and effects on Trumbo’s home life. Compelled in large part because writing is all knows and all he can do well, Trumbo turns his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane, in long-suffering mode), and his three kids, as employees in Trumbo Screenwriting, Inc., a decision that Trumbo sees as a necessity, but one that creates tension and eventually a rift between Trumbo and his oldest daughter, Nikola (played as a sullen, disaffected teen by Elle Fanning), forcing him to reevaluate his priorities and relationships and accordingly make changes in his behavior. It feels a bit contrived, present in Trumbo: The Film to give Trumbo the character a recognizable narrative arc. Without a realization of the “family first” ethos we tend to find in holiday films, Trumbo would lack any momentum or direction, except the eventual decision by Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) to credit Trumbo as the screenwriter on Spartacus, effectively ending the blacklist.
With the exception of Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), gossip columnist and staunch anti-communist, and maybe John Wayne (David James Elliot), the head of the right-leaning Motion Picture Alliance, Trumbo also lacks a recognizably strong antagonist. Presumably, Roach and his screenwriter, Bruce McNamara, adapting Bruce Cook’s non-fiction book, wanted to indict an unjust system, not just individuals. Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), friend, sympathizer, and for a time, blacklisted before he named names, functions to illuminate what left-leaning actors faced in the first decade of the repressive, oppressive Cold War (he bitterly points out that actors can’t hide behind fronts or pseudonyms in one pointed confrontation), but there’s a still a sense that Roach feels comfortable with a simplistic, by-the-names approach to filmmaking, an approach that works better with comedy where Roach made his reputation than with drama.
Visually, Roach opts for a flat, ordinary HBO-inspired style. That Trumbo, both in real life and in the film, was prone to speechifying – it’s only a slight knock to say Trumbo loved to hear himself talk given his mellifluous speech patterns and the high-minded content of that speech – makes Roach’s lack of a visual style all the more telling and, at times, all the more disappointing (see, e.g., David Fincher’s The Social Network and Danny Boyle’s recent Jobs, both adapting Aaron Sorkin, for counter-examples). Still, for all of its narrative and dramatic flatness, there’s an important story here worth experiencing firsthand. History lessons don’t have to be boring and with a scenery-chewing Cranston as Trumbo in practically every scene, boring and Trumbo: The Film shouldn’t be used in the same sentence.