In the recent months, I’d mentioned a few times that Trumbo was among the movies left this year that I was most excited for. It may actually have been #1 on that list (at least before the Anomalisa trailer dropped). Now, looking back on Past Excited Me, I can’t help but wonder why.
Looking at that trailer again, I don’t think I was wrong in being optimistic. For one thing, that cast is a dream. Not just Bryan Cranston, but Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis CK, Elle Fanning, Alan Tudyk, Dan Bakkedahl, John Goodman, Stephen Root, and so many more. Secondly, the tone created by the trailer is that of a hi-hat-driven political hijinksy caper, a teeter totter of Old Hollywood fun and dangerous history. In actuality, director Jay Roach does balance the comedy of the movie (seen mostly in Cranston’s manic impersonation of a brilliant narcissist, along with the untainted comedic relief in the form of Goodman and Root) with the tragedies, both the large landscape-changing social and political ones, and the personal troubles within Trumbo’s family. Unfortunately, those highs and lows never stray very far from a solid middle of half-baked history. It takes a special kind of delicacy to take one of the polarizing, embarrassing events in America’s history— and this brilliant, voracious man at its center— and lower the stakes to the point of near-existence. If you look at Roach’s history, though, it makes a weird sort of sense. This is the man behind the Fockers and Austin Powers franchises, who also frequently mixes his comedy with politics, with varying success. (He directed and/or produced mediocre-to-good movies like Recount, Game Change, The Campaign, and the HBO show The Brink.) Trumbo has the feel of someone who usually puts politics in his comedies, attempting to insert comedy into politics and ending up bogged down by hesitation and reverence. It’s unfortunate, because there was so much potential here, just left to flounder.
Trumbo opens in 1947, when Dalton Trumbo is already a famous, wealthy screenwriter, and the House Un-American Activities Committee was subpoenaing Hollywood players (as well Americans of all walks) to out themselves and others as evil, dirty Communists. The movie follows Trumbo and his fellow Hollywood 10 as they put their First Amendment rights above their own wellbeing, are sent to prison, released, and attempt to re-enter a workforce that wants nothing to do with them. Through pseudonyms, Trumbo earns a living providing an endless supply of lower-than-B movies, balanced out with actual Oscar winners (Oscars which he can never claim, since they were written under the names of his pet birds).
A major pitfall for historical biopics is that it’s nearly impossible to strike that balance between great movie and accurate history. No one expects these movies to be documentaries, but when you leave out huge elements of a story, or when you vilify or whitewash or straight-up ignore important figures, there will be criticism, sometimes outrage. This story, I will admit with some hesitation and embarrassment, is one that I find fascinating but have only a rudimentary knowledge of, gleaned from college film history classes and Wikipedia. Even with that lack of background, this movie has the feel of a Hallmark channel holiday special version of history. The talented cast is wasted on characters that are hugely black and white in terms of their villainy and heroism. Speaking as a person born and raised after and outside of talk of the Cold War, an ultra-liberal California native whose more conservative college friends identified as Green Party members, even I know that there was more nuance to this era than what this movie purports. The closest we get to shades of grey are in the tabloid queen/head of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren with a spectacular array of big hats), whose kneejerk intolerance is occasionally explained by vague references to a son fighting in WWI, and in Louis CK (as Arlen Hird) calling out Trumbo’s financial hypocrisy. Other than this, the available roles here are martyrs and they are villains. Moreover, they are all utterly Important. The movie’s remarkable cast, undeniably its greatest draw, is also one of its biggest weaknesses. With every minor character being played by a brilliant, acclaimed, fan-favorite actor, there’s no chance to not burn out cinematic Importance. There are so many great performances in this movie, and almost none of them gel into anything resembling cohesion. Even Cranston and Louis CK, when faced with each other, could be talking at stand-ins or green screens for all the chemistry they’re lacking. The big outlier here is when Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) shows up to make Exodus, which not coincidentally is later in the movie, when the parade of important characters have died down. Another exception is pretty much any time Elle Fanning (as Trumbo’s eldest daughter) is talking to Cranston.
Across the board, biopics have a hard row to hoe. So many fail because they don’t take their subject matter seriously, sacrificing history and respect for by-the-numbers plot turns. Many others suffer from the opposite, holding their stories in such high regard as to forget they’re making a movie and not a museum installation. Trumbo somehow, almost impressively, falls victim to both.