Dir: Jay Roach
When making a film on this period in Hollywood’s history, there’s added scrutiny by those you’re simultaneously both casting in a harsh light and trying to impress.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee about his political affiliations with communism. He and other screenwriters were subsequently sentenced to serve time in prison and blacklisted so studios wouldn’t hire them when they were released. This puts Trumbo and his family (including Diane Lane and Elle Fanning) in a difficult situation.
When you make a film that is so clearly ‘Oscar bait’ about the most notorious period in Hollywood history, then releasing such a film in the prime awards season, it needs to be of the highest standard. Naturally it will be held up against the light of such bright competition, with extra scrutiny as it depicts (mostly) real people who were also once honoured by the Academy and any flaws will become clear. Sadly this film while good, is not great enough to be nominated for as many golden statues as it features on screen, not even as many as Dalton Trumbo won. It has gained one nomination for the central performance, that’s well-deserved as Bryan Cranston is great but what surrounds his performance just lacks the ‘genius’ his character is admonished to write into every scene.
Opening with extra-diegetic text that establishes the situation in which the following takes place, the film then drops us straight in to it, there’s very little before things get difficult for the characters. Rather than the story,what stood out immediately to me is that there’s no grain in the image at all, it’s shot on digital Arri Alexa XT cameras, which I felt looks good, and this is going to sound like the oddest criticism but it possibly looks too good. Every shot is perfectly crisp, clear, and bright which feels a little disjointed from the period setting. This comes in a year in which you could look at the style of Terence Davies’ ‘Sunset Song’ which used the same cameras but only for internal shots, while making use of 65mm outdoors so that the qualities of film enhance the landscapes. Or of the Oscar nominees, think of ‘Hateful Eight’ or ‘Carol’ both shot on film which seems to be on trend for period pieces, the latter being especially comparable as it is also set in the 1950s and universally praised for the look achieved by Super 16mm film even resulting in a cinematography nomination at the Oscars. In ‘Trumbo’ this remarkably clear picture becomes more distancing when you see how the film makes extensive use of old footage from the trials and newsreel, at times cutting it with re-enactment from the modern cast. The two techniques feel like they almost work against each other, one determined to make the film look of its time and fit in with period footage, the other (which is the majority) looking as up-to-date as possible but ultimately feeling a little flat and lifeless.
There’s a very good cast, most of the main characters were famous scriptwriters (or composites of them), many of whom were Academy Award nominated in their lifetimes, some even went on to form the Screen Writers Guild. With actors such as Alan Tudyk and Louis C. K. all having to play minor supporting roles to Bryan Cranston’s dominating Trumbo, they do some fine work in making as much of their roles as possible. John Goodman is wonderful in his role as the head of a studio that makes rubbish crowd-pleasing movies, not a million miles from his role in ‘Argo’, making full use of his big personality and likeability and managing to pull some of the focus. More subtly yet possibly even more effective are Diane Lane and Elle Fanning, who are very good as Dalton Trumbo’s wife and eldest daughter respectively.
The HUAC as a group are the villains here and most especially their supporters Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott). Mirren who usually plays likeable characters is seethingly venomous throughout, whereas Wayne says how much he hates communists, she shows it.
Many scenes feel quite short, rushed even. The moments in which is slows down and takes its time are the parts in which I felt it improved and deepens. When Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) arrives it gets very good indeed, I found the dynamic with him really enjoyable and wished that would be one of the points in which it would slow down and make the most of this period in Trumbo’s life. Preminger’s personality, while almost unbelievable, comes across in abundance and is a wonderful counterpoint to Trumbo, leading to some funny moments and a sizzle as they work which I would have enjoyed watching for longer.
The film gets a little too heavy-handed at times in trying to remind us that this is worthy material for adaptation, and more so for Academy consideration. From featuring Oscar ceremonies on TV, to ending with photos of the real people, highlighting some very decent resemblances, though I feel if that’s what you’re noticing then the pictures may not be doing all they should.
Nikola Trumbo was a consultant on the film, to what extent that went I’m not sure, though while I feel that it doesn’t completely whitewash or sanitize her father, there’s a distinct lack of gravitas throughout which means you end up with a film about the darkest time in Hollywood’s history, made half a century after the events, yet feeling too light. I found something like Frank Darabont’s ‘The Majestic’ just as, if not more, effective at tackling the issue, and that was a family friendly romance!