Trumbo tells the true story of Dalton Trumbo, a communist and screenwriter imprisoned for contempt of Congress and later blacklisted by Hollywood for his political views. In spite of this, he continued to write films, giving them to other writers as fronts to undermine the imposed blacklist.
Despite the serious implications of the encroaching censorship, director Jay Roach uses humour to highlight the ridiculous extent of the anti-communist paranoia, creating a frivolous mood throughout. This is unsurprising; Trumbo is his first non-comedy feature film. A bright colour palette, kitsch costumes and shiny automobiles, create an overall cheerful aesthetic, producing a shallow nostalgia for the era.
The villainous columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and her side-kick John Wayne (David James Elliott) are mildly cartoonish and one-dimensional; however Hedda’s hysteria combined with John’s simple-minded, blind patriotism effectively caricatures the Hollywood elite of the time.
However it is Bryan Cranston who shines, bringing the eccentric character of Dalton Trumbo to life. He has a charming on-screen presence, delivering witty lines with mischievous charisma and contributing to the whimsical spirit that makes the film so easy and fun to watch. He subtly portrays Trumbo’s optimism and quiet resolution against injustice, creating a believable and dignified hero. As the film progresses, there is a danger that his jovial outlook is becoming tiresome. However, as Trumbo’s obsession puts pressure on his family, new dimensions to his character emerge. Cranston smoothly transitions from principled and eccentric to outright stubborn.
He interacts particularly well with Elle Fanning, who plays Niki, Trumbo’s tenacious teenage daughter. Their natural dynamic depicts both the frustration and warm affection which characterises a father-daughter relationship. Special mention also goes to John Goodman, whose portrayal of the crude, apolitical producer Frank King brings high levels of entertainment value.
Trumbo is a joy to watch, but this triumph is also the ultimate failure of the film. It lacks depth. Despite the pleasing aesthetic, witty lines, and larger than life characters, it feels superficial. After skirting over the more serious aspects of the story, such as Trumbo’s time spent in prison, Cranston’s dignified speech in the closing scenes is a last ditch attempt to highlight the seriousness and misery that McCarthyism brought to America. The speech falls flat, lacking the poignancy and sense of relief that would have been brought had there been a more significant build up. Overall, an important story and period in history becomes somewhat trivialised.
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