I will start this analysis with a full disclosure – I am not too familiar with Dalton Trumbo’s work.
I knew who he was and about his placement on the Hollywood Blacklist. The blacklist was a list of screenwriters who could not get hired by any major studios due to their affiliation with the American Communist Party. It last throughout the 1950s and ended when a few big stars (specifically, Kirk Douglas) finally hired Trumbo and insisted he be credited for his work.
It’s an important piece of history, but Trumbo has not gained a modern audience. Many of Trumbo’s techniques have become outdated as films became less and less conservative. For example, Trumbo wrote and directed an adaptation of his novel Johnny Got His Gun, which was later used by Metallica for a music video. If I had to guess, that music video is one of the few items related to Trumbo that causes any sort of excitement with an audience today.
Still, even if time marches on, artists still capture the era that they lived. Trumbo certainly did. His work captures the last generation of the classic studio system. The films Trumbo wrote were not necessarily personal stories, but gigantic epics that created community events for their audiences. Additionally, Trumbo’s story paved the way for more politically motivated films that became popular through the 1960s and the 1970s. He and the rest of the blacklisted writers deserve a film that will tell their story.
Is Trumbo that film? For me, no. I can’t point to any specific thing that it does wrong on its own terms. Bryan Cranston gives the performance of a lifetime as the titular Dalton Trumbo. The film is well cast, well photographed, and fairly well written. But it’s also too shallow to really have a lasting impact or to explain what motivated the writers to continue in their craft after they were shunned by Hollywood. That’s the story I think the film owed Trumbo, but that’s not the story they told.
Bryan Cranston’s performance as Dalton Trumbo is nothing short of miraculous. He embodies Trumbo not just as a character, but as a man. This is Cranston’s performance of a lifetime as we goes from making grand speeches to quiet moments in his bathtub as he tries to write. Cranston plays Trumbo as a sort of reverse Norma Desmond. His films haven’t gotten small, but he is. He’s trying his best to live up to his own lofty expectations and change the world.
The blacklist ironically gave him the opportunity to be the huge rebel he always dreamed he would be, and Trumbo spends most of the film coming up with a convoluted plan to cover up the authorship of his scripts, with specific drops and specific times. He gets his children involved and there’s an almost obligatory scene where he won’t come down for his daughter (Elle Fanning’s) birthday celebration.
The film has the appropriate emotional impact with the villains Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) jumping at the chance to ruin the writers while Trumbo’s patient wife (Diane Lane) and colleagues like Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) try to support him as they wonder why. Trumbo works on that level. I felt for him. I wanted to cheer for him and was hoping his films would all turn out great – even if the real Trumbo had a spotty record. And he did win based on his talent and his desire to see his name back on the screen one day. It sounds like a typical comeback kid plot, but Trumbo is at least subtle about it. I can see how the film will leave a lot of people smiling, happy that Trumbo overcame.
Where the film falls short is in its ideological examinations. That is to say, Trumbo has no ideological examinations. It never takes the time to examine why Dalton Trumbo joined the Communist Party in the first place and how it affected his work.
We do get one tiny explanation from Trumbo, who explains to his daughter that he just thinks everyone should share with people who are less fortunate. (Trumbo says this while living on a giant ranch next to a lake he had built, but whatever.) I’m pretty sure Trumbo’s glossing over one or two details – details which have one or two details themselves. The film also never explains why, exactly, the U.S. became so paranoid about identifying communists in the first place.
Does it sound like I’m complaining that the film is not addressing what may be my own biases? You are probably correct. However, Tumbo doesn’t bother to explain anything about Trumbo’s ideology and by the end of the film, communism is barely even mentioned.
There are moments that could challenge Trumbo. When he goes to jail for contempt of Congress, one of the inmates he meets is a poorer black man. It sounds like the person Trumbo would support, but this man openly calls him a traitor and threatens him. How does Trumbo react to that? Does he ever question his resolve and his beliefs? The film never says.
With any biopic, it’s important to examine these motivations. Ed Wood, probably my personal favorite film biopic, accomplished this by always reminding us of the fact that Wood was on the brink of financial and personal ruin but was far to optimistic to realize what was happening around him. He made films because he had to – he felt he was living a great dream and could not bear to watch what happened to him if he let go of that dream. I never understood Trumbo. He wrote because he had to, but his films as described in Trumbo weren’t overtly political until the end. So what was his motivation? The film never says. It could be rebellion but, as I said, Trumbo’s communism isn’t mentioned after the first act. And Trumbo isn’t a starving artist – he’s still able to afford a nice home with a pool for his family. Did Trumbo ever question himself and his ability to continue writing?
I think that’s the biggest failure of Trumbo for me. I admired the craft, Cranston’s performance, and I absolutely agree that this was a story that needed to be told. But I left the theater no wiser about Trumbo and what motivated his work. Everything interesting slowly faded away as the film became focused on the formulaic David and Goliath plot. The Hollywood Blacklist era was a terrible time and probably the closest the U.S. has come to punishing thought criminals on a large scale. That’s a gold mine of material for artists to examine. But Trumbo, for everything it does right, only scratches the surface of that massive ideological battle. I can’t fault Trumbo for not accomplishing its goals, but I also can’t help but feeling the film should have aimed a lot higher.