Trumbo (Bleecker Street Media, R)

trumbo 75It’s an enjoyable enough dramatization to not leave you feeling too dirty for liking it.

 

 

 

 

trumbo 500

Anyone with any knowledge of film, literature, modern American history, or, well, just knowledge in general should be interested in the life and works of Dalton Trumbo. He’s written books you maybe read in school (Johnny Got His Gun), screenplays to some truly excellent films (Roman Holiday, Gun Crazy, Spartacus), and, in some ways most memorably, was blacklisted during the communist witch hunts of the late 40s and 50s. (Note: Trumbo was actually a communist, so at least the House of Un-American Activities wasn’t barking up the wrong tree in that regard.) But not only was he blacklisted (which is notable in all kinds of ways, given that Trumbo was already one of our best, most recognizable, hardest working, and highest paid screenwriters at the time he was collectively shunned by the industry), he was articulately outspoken about his beliefs, and transcripts of what he said to Congress (et al.) on the subject make for reading as or more compelling than Trumbo’s more formal writing itself.

Already the subject of a pretty good 2007 documentary, also simply named Trumbo, now we have a more Hollywood-leaning biopic, with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston playing our title character. Cranston does good work here, as he generally does, and, given that this movie is set in Hollywood, some members of its audience will find great pleasure in the recreation of that world—for example, people like John Wayne (here played by David James Elliott), Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) are fairly major characters.

What should be a major problem with the movie winds up being only a minor one: overall, it just isn’t very good. Or, more specifically, it’s a dumb movie, where it feels like it should have been a smart movie—it’s hard not to make the joke that Trumbo would have never written a script this poor, that panders so much to its audience. But getting past that, it is still a pretty wholly enjoyable film, if only because Trumbo’s story is so interesting. And this coming from someone who’s studied Dalton Trumbo with some specificity; I imagine those going in fresh, knowing little about him as a person, are likely to be all the more entertained than I was.

Apart from the patronizing nature of the script, many of the performances aren’t that great. I’ve already mentioned that Cranston is good (thankfully, given that he’s in nearly every scene), as is Diane Lane as his wife Cleo and O’Gorman as Douglas. But Elliott leaves a lot to be desired as the Duke, Louis C.K. isn’t very convincing as Trumbo’s sickly commie cohort Arlen Hird, and Elle Fanning, as the oldest iteration of Trumbo’s daughter Niki (who amusingly calls her own father “Trumbo”), is a little uneven.

Still, Trumbo is hardly a total loss. It’s just interesting enough that I imagine it will get many interested in looking deeper into Dalton Trumbo’s life and work, which can only be seen as a good thing. And even for those who have already looked into it at some length, it’s an enjoyable enough dramatization to not leave you feeling too dirty for liking it. | Pete Timmermann

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