Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning
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2016 may well go down in history as the year when the director of Anchorman won the Oscar for Best Picture. But if The Big Short’s canny knack to fuse humour and housing crisis maths can be traced back to the stats-filled end credits of Adam McKay’s The Other Guys, the same is true of fellow funny-director-gone-straight Jay Roach, whose Trumbo is nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. It’s a historical drama about the McCarthy Communist hunts – but it’s closer to Austin Powers.
The film pays tribute to Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter who became blacklisted as part of the McCarthy Community witchhunt of the 1950s. He was one of the Hollywood 10, the group of filmmakers who refused to testify before McCarthy’s committee against “Un-American Activities”, making them political underdogs, admirably principled protestors and professional outsiders. It’s the kind of set-up that’s ripe for thrilling, biting commentary and meaty, rousing drama. Unfortunately, Trumbo mostly ends up just plain ripe.
The main problem is, ironically enough, the script from John McNamara. Making his feature debut, after writing five episodes of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, he’s not quite sure which angle to focus on – the industry’s in-fighting of the period, the personal toll of the political strife or the glamorous, grand deception that Trumbo carried out, as he won two Oscars (Roman Holiday, The Brave One) without Hollywood even realising the truth behind his pen name. So the film promptly decides to focus on all of them.
As a result, we’re treated to a brisk parade of ‘cameos’, as the film’s casting director shows off their knack for matching modern faces to old names – Dean O’Gorman as an uncannily accurate Kirk Douglas and the chameleonic Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G Robinson. Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, though, tips the balance into hammy territory, leaving the whole backdrop feeling fake.
At the centre of it all, Bryan Cranston. From Argo and Breaking Bad to Malcolm in the Middle, he has delivered some incredible performances on screen. This is not one of them. Latching on to the over-the-top nature of his protagonist – he spends half the runtime writing in the bath, while smoking – his exuberant stubbornness becomes more and more cliched as the film goes on. When he and Mirren are trading verbal blows, you’re no longer watching Dalton and Hedda: you’re watching Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren.
Only John Goodman, effectively reprising his role in Argo, gets the balance right, managing to be larger-than-life but completely believable as the one producer willing to do business with the exiled writer. When the film attempts serious emotions, on the other hand – “All I wanted was to be just like you!” cries Elle Fanning’s daughter, Niki Trumbo, in the rain – it falls disappointingly flat. A great turn by Louis CK as blacklisted friend, Arlen, meanwhile, feels like it’s been taken out of a different movie.
Roach is a dab hand at pastiching the period vibe, but any weight his film might have had to begin with just gets lighter and lighter. Should we be feeling sorry for Dalton? Cheering him on against the system? Reviled by his self-centred lack of concern for his family? Soon enough, we simply don’t care. Trumbo certainly looks the part, but this is a cartoonish, Disneyfied depiction of a dark chapter in history that never quite escapes its own preening, inside-industry attitude. At times, it’s closer to Dumbo than Trumbo.
Trumbo is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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