Trumbo review: ‘Inherently dull’

12:51 04 February 2016

Bryan Cranston in Trumbo. Picture: Bleecker Street

Bryan Cranston in Trumbo. Picture: Bleecker Street

Archant

Bryan Cranston is in enjoyable form in this easy critique of a shameful period in Hollywood history, says Michael Joyce.

Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Elle Fanning, Michael Stuhlbarg and Louis C.K.
Film Length: 124 mins

The communist witch hunts and blacklists instigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) would surely sail into the nominations for Most Shameful Period In 20th Century American History Oscar, and that’s despite some tough competition. Thousands of careers and lives were ruined or broken by them.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was the most prominent of the Hollywood Ten, jailed in 1950 for refusing to cooperate with the Committee’s hearings. For 10 years he was blacklisted, writing scripts (and winning Oscars) under pseudonyms and organizing work for other blacklisted writers until Kirk Douglas effectively broke the blacklist by crediting him as the writer of Spartacus.

Trumbo is a nice enough film with an enjoyable performance by Cranston in the title role and lots of perky cameos. But it is a film about writers, and writing is an inherently dull on-screen activity. Trumbo is the archetypal screen writer, clattering away at his typewriter while puffing away at ciggies and downing glasses of whisky – writers in films always drink whisky. The film’s novelty is that he often does all this in the bath.

Hysterical scapegoating and paranoid fearmongering are always worthwhile subjects and here in the Trump-o era you can see why a film about this might seem relevant right now. But Trumbo is a safe little biopic. Louis C.K, playing another member of the Ten, complains to Trumbo at one point, “Do you have to say everything like its chiseled in stone?” and that goes for the film as a whole.

The big problem with films about this era is that they are all too easy; they’re like anti-capital punishment films in which an innocent person is sentenced to death. They may have been members of the Communist Party, but most of the Ten were in no way a threat to the American way of life. When Trumbo has to hand over his personal possessions at the start of his prison sentence they include a gold cigarette case; much of his tragedy is seen as the fact that he went from being the highest paid writer in Hollywood to writing for peanuts and having to move to a smaller house.

Rating: 4/5 stars

For a review of the blu-ray release of Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyne, visit halfmanhalfcritic.weebly.com

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