Review: Trumbo


3.5 stars

I remember an episode of Cheers where Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson) spent most of the show strutting around dressed as Mark Twain, practicing for some community theater gig. He'd take a few steps, then pause, digging his thumbs into his lapels before launching into a deceptively folksy Twain quote. “Well you know …” he'd say, or “A fellow once asked me …” The opening words set the tone, allowing Woody to ease into his next bit of classic Twain. Harrelson was wonderful, managing to impart the wit and wisdom of Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain while also coming off like a stuffed Twain talking doll.

Bryan Cranston as blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo reminded me of Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd doing Mark Twain. Once he got rolling he sounded genuine, but from time to time – often during intros or pauses in monologues – he came off like a community theater actor preforming Dalton Trumbo Tonight!

Cranston, of course, played Walter White in the landmark TV series Breaking Bad. As anyone who watched the show can attest, the man can act. He has a lot tp try and manage in Trumbo. His character is a gifted writer, a political activist, a hero to some and a villain to others, a flawed husband and father, a pill popper, and a self-designed character who has great difficulty straddling the line between being larger-than-life and just coming off like a blowhard.

One thing's for sure: Trumbo would be a better movie if Dalton Trumbo had been able to rewrite the screenplay. The one crafted by John McNamara for Jay Roach's film is cloddish often enough to keep you from surrendering to the good parts.

Trumbo, acclaimed author of Johnny Got His Gun, was a member of the Communist Party. A lot of Americans used to be, until the Cold War changed how communists were regarded. His conspicuous involvement in a labor dispute between the Conference of Studio Unions and the major Hollywood power brokers drew the attention of extreme conservatives, including the powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren).

Eventually the House Un-American Activities Committee calls Trumbo and nine other writers of note to testify in Washington D.C. as part of their anti-communist crusade. Trumbo is defiant, treating the committee members in a dismissive fashion. His flippant behavior leads to the Hollywood Ten being held in contempt of Congress and thrown into the hoosegow.

Upon his release 11 months later, Trumbo is barred from working in Tinseltown. He navigates around the blacklisting by writing under fake names (he won Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One). Trumbo establishes a relationship with low-budget filmmakers the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root) and brings in other members of the Hollywood Ten. The jobs are frustrating and demeaning, but they keep the men employed.

Regardless, the grumbling about the government investigators grows louder. Open defiance of these people is demanded, but who is powerful enough to face the accusers and get away with it?

Some of the film's best scenes come during the writers' time working for the King brothers. John Goodman gets the production's most dynamic moment. No spoilers – suffice to say he knocks the scene out of the ballpark. Louis C.K. costars as Hollywood Ten writer Arlen Hird. His naturalistic delivery seems almost too casual in comparison to the stiffer presentation styles of the other males. Fault the director for that. Allen Tudyk (Firefly) provides solid support as Ian McLellan Hunter.

Notable celebrity impersonations include Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, David James Elliott as John Wayne and Dean O'Gorman, who is very effective as Kirk Douglas. On the home front, Diane Lane has little to do except wring her hands and be supportive as wife Cleo Trumbo, while Elle Fanning gets a wider variety of character notes to play as the eldest incarnation of Trumbo daughter Niki.

Trumbo has some fine performances, an important story, some entertaining scenes, and even a bit of humor. But it tries too hard to be a prestige film, it drags in spots, and it's overly obvious to the point of annoyance. Glad I saw it, glad when it was over.

Now showing Keystone Art


Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.