Trumbo review: Roach’s biopic anything but dull
Director Jay Roach | Starring Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, John Goodman, Elle Fanning, Louis CK | Certificate TBC | In cinemas 22.01.16
It’s no secret by now that Hollywood loves Hollywood. Three Academy Awards for Best Picture in the past five years have gone to films about how the showbiz industry sees itself*, and this year, Hollywood delivers yet another self-reflexive feature; albeit one unlikely to be scooping up many Oscars.
Examining the Hollywood blacklist has been done before, in Guilty By Suspicion (1991), The Front (1976), and The Way We Were (1973), to name a few. Yet Jay Roach’s latest creation manages to stand apart from those which have come before it. Rather than taking on McCarthyism or the blacklisted Hollywood Ten as ‘a serious topic’, Trumbo centres around its communist-sympathising namesake – the industry’s highest paid screenwriter at the time, Dalton Trumbo – and how the House Un-American Activities Committee affected his career and family in the 1950s and ’60s. Notably, Trumbo shows more of how its titular hero worked around and rose above the political constraints of his time, than how HUAC (which is painted as a laughable rather than a formidable entity) kept him down.
“I’m not willing to lose it all, but I am willing to risk it all … That’s where the radical and the rich guy make the perfect combination”, boasts Trumbo to his friend Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.). Indeed, Trumbo’s stint in prison is short and agreeable, his wife and kids stand by him, he keeps his beautiful family home, and he continues to make a decent salary by some means or another. He doesn’t seem to lose much at all, and his story does not show the full extent of the HUAC horror which affected others in ways much worse.
Nevertheless, the film doesn’t claim to be a history lesson on the Red Scare, and with its seamless transitioning between archival news reels and recreations of McCarthy-era scenes, along with its effective blending of humour and an important subject, we get a well-rounded biopic of one very interesting man, living in a very interesting cultural and political climate.
A large part of this climate is the dynamic between Trumbo’s friends and colleagues. While some hope for self-preservation by ‘naming names’ of communist sympathisers within their ranks, others would rather risk themselves than cave to cowardice. This is where Trumbo makes a departure from Jay Roach’s prior filmography (this is the guy responsible for the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies). Not only is the film beautifully shot, it is also superbly acted, featuring nomination-worthy performances from its supporting cast. In particular, John Goodman has us in stitches with his portrayal of pulp film producer Frank King, and Dean O’Gorman is a literal scene-stealer in bringing a young Kirk Douglas to life. And while this reviewer found it difficult to un-see Bryan Cranston’s career-defining character Walter White behind Trumbo’s moustache, it is undeniable that he delivers a pretty on-point depiction of the idiosyncratic genius screenwriter whose work was largely composed in his bathtub. As for Helen Mirren’s performance… If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.
In spite of the advice offered by the leading man himself, that “if every scene is brilliant, your movie is going to be monotonous”, Trumbo succeeds in creating a string of brilliant scenes without being monotonous. This is ultimately a well written, well acted, enjoyable biopic, which somehow manages to retain the sharp dialogue and humour occasionally verging on slapstick that Mike Myers and Ben Stiller have indulged us in with Roach’s earlier work.
Read our Q&A with Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje here.
Trumbo is playing as part of the BFI London Film Festival, and will be on general release from January 22nd, 2016. Check out the trailer below.
*The Artist (2011), Argo (2012), and Birdman (2014)