It seems more than a little fitting that Jay Roach’s new biopic, Trumbo, is classified as a ‘Drama’ for the forthcoming Golden Globes in spite of its studio’s preference for it to be considered in the less competitive Comedy category. This is fitting not only since Trumbo is a movie that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but also because it betrays the navel-gazing, self-referential tendencies of Hollywood that the movie initially seeks to satirize but ultimately falls victim to itself.
Following the opening credit sequence which offers some historical context — wherein we learn that Dalton Trumbo joined the Community Party of America in 1943 — the movie starts with the titular Trumbo asleep in the bath. Trumbo, played with the now-familiar curmudgeonly charm of Bryan Cranston, stirs from amphibious slumber to return to his writing. We immediately cut from this bath-based bathos to a black-and-white mafia scene, which we soon learn is the product of Trumbo’s screenwriting when the fourth wall is broken and we see him behind the camera providing guidance to the actors.
As a screenwriter, Trumbo’s star is rising: it is not long before he signs a contract which makes him the highest paid writer in Hollywood and thus the world. Yet Trumbo’s political proclivities are not to the liking of many of his peers, especially John Wayne, head of the Motion Picture Alliance, and the poison-penned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. In a memorable early scene, a sardonic Trumbo needles the Goliath-sized Wayne about his non-existent war record, narrowly avoiding an old-fashioned sock to the jaw.
The movie sustains a steady and engaging pace in its first act, as the financial, personal and legal consequences of Trumbo’s recalcitrant communism take their toll. The production values are high here: not merely in the lush landscapes and lavish living rooms of the Hollywood elite, but also in the immersive use of pseudo-found footage and contemporary press cuttings, which paint a vivid picture of the political environment. Politics, it seems, is mostly a matter of perception, and thus political power rests with those able to shape perception, through the multimodal media system.
Yet it is the necessary fate of biopics that they are only as eventful as their subjects’ lives, and following the dramatic nadir of incarceration early on, Trumbo’s plot slackens as its pace slows. The magnificent belated arrival of John Goodman aside, Trumbo transitions from tense historical thriller to middling family drama as it enters its second hour. Reunited with his loved ones, Trumbo and his colleagues embark on an audacious and (ironically, given his ideology) entrepreneurial scheme to keep the money flowing in, effectively applying Fordist principles of mass production to the writing and distribution of movie scripts.
It is only Cranston’s consistency in his handling of both legal and familial melodrama which holds together this decidedly double-jointed story arc. This will be familiar to veterans of Breaking Bad — though unlike in that series, the physicality of terminal illness is handled here instead with surprising grace by Louis C.K., in his role as Trumbo’s more conscientious co-conspirator Arlen Hird. The comedian’s gallows humor serves as a refreshing refrain at headier moments.
In addition to its chimeric plot, one also senses a missed opportunity in Trumbo’s treatment of Hollywood through the ages. Film buffs may enjoy the rendering of figures like Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger and its references to classics like Spartacus, which forms the basis for the movie’s peroration. But Trumbo’s early principled idealism has, by the end, been completely superseded in focus by financial accomplishment and critical acclaim — the two commodities which, of course, Hollywood values above all else. Thus though Trumbo’s attempt to parody its paymasters started brightly with its treatment of the buffoonish John Wayne and the MPA, by the time characters are literally handing each other Oscars, it feels as insightful as a chameleon on a mirror.
Trumbo, then, is a faithful enough paean to its protagonist, and contains sufficient zingy one-liners and flashes of nostalgia to hold the attention throughout. But the overall experience feels rather like the hot bath wherein we first encounter Trumbo and to which he returns throughout the movie: captivating at first, and satisfying enough throughout, but by the time we get out, disappointingly lukewarm.