I tend to balk at the term ‘awards bait’, I think it can be reductive to the work put in by the cast and crew. I don’t believe that films are made with the singular purpose of winning awards; people want to tell stories, and sometimes marketing and PR spins them into statue collecting powerhouses when the stars align on that particular year. Which is what makes Trumbo, coming right at the end of the Awards season rush, so disheartening. Maybe if it was released mid-year it would be perfectly harmless. But coming just in time to make a plea for your consideration, Trumbo cynically flaunts its white privilege, and fails to tell its true story with interest.
For the uninitiated, Dalton Trumbo was the celebrated screenwriter of classics like Roman Holiday and The Brave One. Only he wasn’t credited for the films. This is because he was a confessed communist and was blacklisted by Hollywood, meaning he had to use fake names or sell his work through other people to see his stories produced. Trumbo follows this struggle, the toll it has on his family, and how it changed Hollywood forever.
In the role of Dalton Trumbo is Brian Cranston, who shares a lot of scenes with Louis CK’s Arlen Hird (a composite of five real life screenwriters, a fact that undermines the arc of the character and truthfulness of the movie). So we have the giant of TV drama and the giant of sitcom. They are natural screen presences who are always engaging to watch, and Cranston brings his usual manic energy to the role. However they cannot help but remind us that we are effectively watching a ‘TV’ movie, one with little visual atmosphere, with a generic score and that follows an episodic structure that would encourage ad breaks. For a film set in glamorous 50s Hollywood this does nothing to help the verisimilitude- it’s not like we see the setting through rose tinted spectacles, nor are we presented with the grittier reality, or even some kind of mixture a la Altman’s The Player. We are simply presented the scenes as written, with little to make this an exciting cinematic experience. Director Jay Roach, of Austin Powers fame, tries to ‘progress’ to straight drama but, much like Adam McKay, who’s The Big Short displayed a touch more visual invention but looked and felt like a lighter film than it was, Roach still shoots the film like a Frat comedy.
Trumbo hopes to be Argo for McCarthyism, but its weaving of the Hollywood community is lazy. Director Otto Preminger turns up in one scene and announces himself, ‘I am Otto Preminger- the director’. John Wayne is shown as a cartoon bastard, just another faceless suit. Trumbo only ever takes the surface view of characters. This is worst felt in the patronising depiction of the man himself. Trumbo is a saint here who’s his anger at his wife and neglect of his children are only ever because he is trying to do the right thing, occasionally snapping under the pressure like it wants you to believe that any man would. Of course this cartoon hero is given a cartoon villain, and who better than Helen Mirren? She plays gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as a mad hat wearing Professor Umbridge, cackling her way through her scenes as she attempts to obstruct Trumbo’s progress at every turn. This is part of the problem: its the Hollywood elite against the Hollywood elite. The film is about incredibly wealthy white men fighting for their rights, which in the climate of #Oscarssowhite gives the film a moribund feeling, particularly in its attempts to be rousing in the third act. The Hollywood blacklisting is an awful period in US history but it is almost shown as some sort of lark, a mere obstacle for the genius Trumbo, who stands for disenfranchised rich white guys everywhere, to overcome.
Trumbo feeds the adult oriented audience exactly what they want: solid actors, an amusing screenplay, competent production design and political (read: important) undertones. But with little eye for detail and no effort from the director to tease the themes out visually or to ever play with the audience’s expectations or perceptions, Trumbo leaves you wondering why you didn’t just read the facts online.