Amongst the chain smoking and typewriter banging, there’s a story about a self-proclaimed American commy and his battle to win back his career. The life of Oscar winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is a fascinating one: disgraced, blacklisted and jailed, to then fight back to have his moment in the Hollywood sun, the Spartacus scribe couldn’t have written it better himself. Austin Powers director Jay Roach tackles this politically-fused tale adapted from Bruce Cook’s book, Dalton Trumbo, with the recently Oscar nominated Bryan Cranston taking leading stage as the man himself.
World War II may have come to an end, but there was a new threat in town: Communism. With America’s relations with the USSR finely balanced, the red scare was not just frightening the big wigs in Washington, but it was scaring the bejesus out of Hollywood too. Here rose the ‘Hollywood 10’: a gang of movie types who refused to answer questions over their apparent left-wing affiliations, and were subsequently cast aside from the film business.
The most high profile of the 10, Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) – previously the highest paid writer in the industry – refused to take it lying down. Defamed, betrayed and imprisoned, the cigarette-loving writer kept on typing, as he attempted to show Hollywood’s infamous blacklist for the worthless piece of rubbish he always believed it was.
Rebel, radical, genius? Roach’s patchy biopic delves sporadically into the big questions Trumbo asks about the man, yet never quiet reaches a fully satisfactory conclusion. For the opening hour we’re gifted a world of black and white flashbacks and plenty of 40’s nostalgia; always skimming the surface of the rising communist tensions, yet never getting under its hardening skin. One thing that never lets us down though is Cranston’s Trumbo. Always smoking, often typing, occasionally wise-cracking…
It’s first half is enjoyable fluff: shiny, stylish, but never engaging enough to keep us hooked as we’re introduced to its other key players: Louis C.K’s Arlen Hird, another member (albeit fictional) of the ‘10’ and Trumbo’s feisty political sparring partner, Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), the showbiz journo and commy-hater, and Dalton’s ever-patient wife, Cleo (Diane Lane). Yet it’s beyond the jail term and witnessing Trumbo and his fellow outcasts back on the forefront that the film really begins to grab our attentions. Its surface is breached, if not altogether convincingly but at least more assertively, as beyond all its impressively carved exterior, we finally get to see what’s ticking in that over-worked brain of his.
The relationship with his eldest daughter Niki (Elle Fanning) opens the door to his personal life, whilst his politics, beliefs and motives become clearer as his one-twos with the uncompromising Hird become the ever-more interesting. His love-hate relationship with his fellow political adversary make for the most thought provoking sequences: one wants change (Hird), the other (Trumbo) wants to win (versus the Hollywood machine).
Like a fine wine, Roach’s Trumbo gets better with time. An inconsistent bag of Golden Era hat-tipping, fabulous period settings and political/social endeavours, its final hour demonstrates the impressive biopic it could, and should, have been.