The vast majority of biographical films follow a predictable and often unsatisfying formula: select a figure whose name will be instantly recognizable to every prospective viewer, then play up any and all personal struggles, peculiarities, and family problems of that figure as much as conceivably possible. Examples of this strategy swell to my mind in abundance, from John Lennon’s youth in Nowhere Boy to Alfred Hitchcock’s later middle-age in Hitchcock to Howard Hughes’ entire adult life in The Aviator.
With this in mind, it was nothing short of a breath of fresh air to enjoy the realism in Jay Roach’s Trumbo, which tells the true tale of acclaimed Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo’s imprisonment and blacklisting for his communist political leanings. By ‘realism’ I do not mean to imply that Trumbo’s historical accuracy is any better than the other films named above (some key details of its depiction of Edward G. Robinson are almost certainly fabrications). Indeed, I had limited knowledge of the Hollywood Ten prior to seeing Trumbo, and even less of Dalton Trumbo himself (despite my previous enjoyment of some of the films he wrote).
Rather, I mean that the characters are not bizarre, lascivious caricatures of the figures involved, but are instead nuanced and lively representations. On the strengths of its actors, its unique restraint in the biopic genre, and the modern resonance of the American paranoia depicted, Trumbo succeeds as a great and thoroughly enjoyable movie.
History and Acting in Trumbo:
Much of my adoration for Trumbo is a result of the use and portrayal of the characters of Dalton and Cleo Trumbo by Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane. Cranston’s increasingly characteristic excellence in portraying brooding or tragic figures is here allied to an equally excellent presentation of Dalton Trumbo’s sensitivity and intelligence.
Lane’s Cleo Trumbo is an absolute delight in a genre over-stuffed with disillusioned or else fawning spouses; she provides a supportive and dedicated figure—true to what we know of the actual Cleo Trumbo—without reducing Cleo to a deluded enabler.
In particular, the family drama of the movie’s third act is when the movie most impressed me, as these lead characters did not devolve into outlandish biopic stereotypes when the biographical details would apparently have opened the door for them to do so (the paranoia and family strife were at an all-time high); the drama remains believable and Dalton Trumbo only lacks self-awareness for a forgivingly brief span.
A surprising further delight in this film is the strong performance from Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird. I was previously impressed by C.K.’s (relatively undemanding and minor) dramatic role in the phenomenal film Blue Jasmine, but he features far more prominently (and no less admirably) in Trumbo. His character gets off to a slow start with a few distracting line readings, but the consistent disaffected sadness of C.K.’s Hird presents a vulnerable and damaged idealism that seems emblematic of the entire blacklisted community.
The film is secondarily upheld by the performances of Alan Tudyk, Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, and David James Elliott as Ian McLellan Hunter, Hedda Hopper, Edward G. Robinson, and John Wayne, respectively. All of them took on characters that would have been very easy to overact and overdo (especially true in the case of John Wayne), but all of them instead put in restrained, believable performances that help to establish and maintain the aforementioned realistic tone of the film.
No review of this film would be complete without mentioning the exceptionally entertaining performances of John Goodman and Stephen Root as the King Brothers, whose championing of an apolitical low-brow sector of the movie industry provides several unexpected, hearty laughs. Both have proven themselves as capable actors in both serious and comedic roles in the past, and their performances here have them at their very best in both. One readily forgives the potential lack of historical accuracy in these scenes when the content is so light and yet so compelling.
Despite all of my praise for the great acting, it is not a perfect movie. The lighting is a bit overly muddy throughout; a few of the historical figures (for instance, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas) who feature heavily in the latter half of the film do come across in the caricature-style typical of so many other biopic features; and there are one or two sequences toward the end of the film which seem to serve a redundant purpose and which could easily have been removed. And that’s without going into detail on the convenient and misleading portrayal of Edward G. Robinson mentioned above. But obviously I feel that the movie’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.
Finally, I do think that the subject of the film has an emotional parallel with modern America, whose society never seems able to shake its abiding fear that it is being actively invaded from all angles and all social strata by undesirable ideologies. Words with specific and academic meanings become political buzzwords, and entire swathes of the population get grouped under headings and criticized, if not subjugated, en masse.
Trumbo’s lesson (for it is didactic, though not overbearingly so) is one that every generation of Americans would do well to learn: the degree to which one earnestly tries to understand people with whom one disagrees is directly proportional to the likelihood that one stops oneself from ruining the lives of good people; and one’s caution, however well-meaning, has the potential to lead one into baseless fears and unjustified hates. In the case of Trumbo, you should come for the amazing acting, and stay for the portrait of America at its most paranoid.
History Less Exaggerated: