Trumbo feels like a film that I should like a lot more than I do. It’s a Hollywood historical piece populated with a cast of performers that I all enjoy over the breadth of their careers. However, it also strikes me that the purpose for this film’s existence is pretty bare and blatant: this is a piece of Oscar bait, goading the Academy to rally behind the story of one of its most unjustly persecuted talents. The film is good on its own merits, to be sure, but that ulterior motive seems to hover just outside the frame at all times, and it exposes the film for exactly the by-the-numbers biopic that it is.
Bryan Cranston makes a star turn in his first major role since Breaking Bad as Dalton Trumbo, an openly Communist screenwriter who was wildly successful in the 1940s. However, in the wake of WWII, the U.S. Congress felt a need to root out Communist influences in popular media for fear that this would lead to sympathies with the other, non-capitalist superpower of the era. This led to the imprisonment of ten of Hollywood’s most outspoken Communist writers, and once they were released from prison, these writers were blacklisted from working with any major studio. This forced these writers to work in secret and for little pay, which caused hardship, loss, and in extreme instances even death.
The film lives and dies with its incredible ensemble cast of notable character actors, including Louis C.K., John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Alan Tudyk, Diane Lane, and Michael Stahlbarg, to name only a handful. Most of these great actors get their share of great character moments, painting the darkest chapter of Hollywood’s history as populated with eclectic and larger-than-life figures who feel believable precisely because Hollywood thrives on the illusion of being larger than life. Cranston does an admirable job as Trumbo, though I think the rumblings of this landing him an Oscar nomination are somewhat unfounded; he’s still doing a variation of the underappreciated genius shtick he was pushing as Walter White, except his character now has the wit and moral integrity to back it up.
And yet, despite the film’s great character moments, there is a lack of emotionally connective tissue to tie these scenes together. Trumbo is victim to the classic biopic pitfall of trying to condense decades of information into two hours, so while the film as a whole feels like a coherent whole, the transitions between scenes that span vast lengths of time feel somewhat forced and at times tonally dissonant with one another. Furthermore, the film falls into a second act lull that pulls attention away from the victimhood of the Hollywood Ten to focus on Dalton Trumbo’s personal failings as a human being when placed under the pressure of the situation. In another film, this sequence would have been perfectly fine, as it is well-acted and heartfelt, but here it feels like a distraction meant to show off Cranston’s acting chops.
However, you shouldn’t take that to mean that Trumbo is a bad film. Far from it, this is an engaging and entertaining piece of biographical fiction. Sure it’s a little bloated and a little pretentiously self-congratulatory, but it makes up for that with some truly entertaining performances, some of whom steal the show with seemingly little effort. Bryan Cranston may be the audience draw for this picture, but much like the real Dalton Trumbo, he wouldn’t get far without the support of his colleagues.