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Saturday, November 21, 2015

REVIEW: TRUMBO is a Decent Biopic That Wants to be So Much More

As we've ranted about on a few podcasts, the famous white guy biopic has long been a staple of Oscar season, even more so in recent years. While Trumbo has a lot of the usual–not least of all a star studded cast, including Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, and Diane Lane–there are at least a few things that make it stand apart from the crowd a bit. Foremost is its director, Jay Roach, who is likely most famous for helming all three of the Austin Powers movies, obviously taking a turn for the far more dramatic here. Also is the subject himself: Dalton Trumbo is certainly an important figure in cinematic history, but nowhere near as well known as the subjects most biopics tackle.

Trumbo tells the story of Dalton Trumbo, a top screenwriter in the late 1940s who was an outspoken communist who fought for the rights of film crew unions. As the Cold War progressed, he and his associates–other writers and actors such as Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.)–come under a great deal of scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee for their political leanings. Combined with pressure by Hollywood media, led by Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott), all are either blacklisted or forced to name their friends. Over time, Trumbo manages to get himself and his fellow blacklisted writers writing screenplays under pseudonyms and for z-list studios, slowly taking back their top slots with films like Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and Exodus.

The biggest issue that is readily apparent is the seeming lack of flow; it's as if they weren't sure where to start or end the story, so things just sort of continue to happen. I can appreciate not telling someone's complete life story and honing in on a very specific set of events (a la Selma and Steve Jobs), but this just feels aimless. The scope feels too large, and besides telling us how awful the blacklist was (nothing new), there doesn't seem to be a unifying theme other than, "Oh! I didn't know this guy Trumbo wrote that!"

What I did really enjoy about the film is its ambiguity. Unlike most biopics, Dalton Trumbo is not made out to be a hero. Often it's not clear whether he's fighting for the rights of his fellow blacklisters or just trying to make money for himself, even to his family. He is witty and clever and able to talk circles around anyone who accuses him, but that element is always present. He is also called out for only being willing to take on HUAC in the first place because he had the money to do so, dragging many less financially fortunate friends with him to prison and the blacklist.

There are a few very good performances in the film, with Bryan Cranston obviously taking the lead as the smartass Trumbo, played with a good deal of subtlety and only a hair over the line of over-the-top. Elle Fanning and Diane Lane, as his daughter and wife respectively, are also standouts who give a thoughtful portrayal of a family that feels cornered into helping Trumbo despite his increasingly outrageous demands. For every believable performance, however, there are several that veer well into cartoonish imitation, in particular those playing Otto Preminger, Kirk Douglas, and John Wayne.

While Trumbo is mostly an enjoyable time that tells a somewhat unknown story about a time period cinephiles are more than familiar with, it fails to break any new ground or stand out as the Oscar hopeful it so wants to be. There's nothing outright wrong with the film, but it feels quite aimless and definitely drawn out, and you may find yourself expecting the ending at every turn, only to find the ending turn up in an odd jump forward in time. Trumbo is a decent flick that's trying way too hard to be something much more.


 Trumbo is in select theaters now, and is directed by Jay Roach, starring Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, and Diane Lane.
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