Communism may be better in theory than practice, but the same can’t be said of casting Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo; the blacklisted visionary lurking behind some of cinema’s finest.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
The world knew his name, and loved his legendary work; though not necessarily always in correlation with each other, since for a long period it wasn’t his name appearing in the credits. Dalton Trumbo, genius Hollywood screenwriter and radical liberal activist, is given life by Bryan Cranston in Jay Roach’s biopic Trumbo; chronicling the controversial figure from his early post-World War II days of membership in the Communist Party of the USA. Though praised for his distinguished films, Trumbo faced frequent criticism for his anti-American opinions, and was eventually blacklisted and imprisoned for a year. Upon release, his involvement in the film industry was still forbidden, so he began to work undercover, creating some of cinema’s most prestigious pictures and earning several Oscars in the process. Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman and Michael Stuhlbarg round out an all-star supporting cast.
Trumbo is possibly the very definition of a mid-tier Oscar nominee, with plenty of awards-worthy positives undercut by a few negatives. That’s not to say it’s by any means disappointing, but – perhaps fittingly, like the notorious screenwriter himself – it’s a little conflicting. Director Jay Roach, graduating from breezy comedies like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents to the coveted “take me seriously!” biographical drama, unfortunately does some premature maturing, and bogs the film’s first half down in heavy political content. It’s never not interesting, but it’s too sprawling; spending too much time on the history of Communism in the States, and introducing too many characters without allowing the time for us to get to know them.
The second half narrows the scope down to the moustached man himself, and his – at times – venomous treatment of the Trumbo family. Here it seems the filmmakers cannot decide whether to paint Trumbo as hero or villain, despite unashamedly lauding him during his period of liberal rallying. The awards-bait status is maintained by the sense of sticking to biopic guidelines, rolling through the years and checking off each noteworthy life event – but at least it has one hell of a life to look at, and one heck of an actor to bring him to life.
Since his shift from the small screen to the big one, Bryan Cranston’s been in everything from Drive to Argo to Godzilla, but always limited to minor, background roles. Finally we have a lead position worthy of Walter White’s gargantuan talents. Just about as complex (and as sneakily manipulative of a flawed system) as his meth kingpin, Cranston’s consistently engrossing performance is the film’s anchor, giving it constant momentum and intrigue even as the rest of the picture starts to lag behind him. It’s not a showy act, but it is compelling enough to make a potentially sour figure hugely likeable. It really is a mystery how an actor as compulsively watchable as Cranston has taken this long to reach the A-list, and why he isn’t yet headlining an Oscar nominee every year.
The rest of the reputable cast is, too, so uniformly excellent that it is hard to single out any one member worthy of more praise than the others; Goodman is particularly amusing, and Fanning continues to put her older sister to shame, but surprisingly it’s newcomer Dean O’Gorman who steals the show, earning the biggest laughs as Spartacus’ Kirk Douglas (for whom he is a dead ringer). He’s granted only a small amount of screen time, but it’s nothing short of comedic brilliance.
In fact, this is what Roach gets so right – Trumbo is unexpectedly and frequently hilarious, though never to the point of undermining the dramatic moments; there’s a terrific balance at work here. The political content and views are up for heated debate, especially given the recent surge in left-wing mentality, but the film itself is what it is – a solid, if standard biopic bolstered by its tremendous cast, intriguing Hollywood subject, and pure entertainment value.
Trumbo is available in Australian cinemas from February 18th
Images courtesy of Entertainment One Films Australia