Biopics go hand in hand with awards season, we all know that. Especially when the subject matter is serious, you expect some level of Oscar aspiration. Still, you don’t normally expect heavy material to be given a delightfully light touch, but that’s the case here with Trumbo. In telling this story, the choice of Jay Roach as director pays tremendous dividends, as he’s able to take his comedy background and mix it with the serious aesthetic he brought to top notch political dramas Game Change and Recount for HBO. The result, along with a wonderful performance by Bryan Cranston in the title role, makes for something both educational as well as entertaining. It strikes the kind of balance that too few biopics/period pieces are able to do, which makes for a richly enjoyable experience, if sadly a rare one. Cranston is the best thing about this film, though the cast on the whole is quite good. Roach probably could have trimmed things a bit to get under two hours, but the movie does mostly earn that time. Trumbo is perhaps too light to appeal to the Academy, but it does have potentially strong audience appeal in its favor. I can’t say this was a flick I was especially looking forward to, but it wound up being a really pleasant surprise. Trumbo is an easy film to like, and if you’re anything like me, you might actually wind up loving it.
A period piece, of course, the film starts out in the mid to late 1940’s, as America was finally done with the second World War and Hollywood was booming. Among screenwriters in the business, no one was more famous than Dalton Trumbo (Cranston), a top tier writer also known for his Communist viewpoints. Trumbo is part of a small group of cohorts who meet to discuss their political positions, including star actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.). At home, Trumbo has a loving wife in Cleo (Diane Lane) and three kids, basically living the American dream. Then, anti Communist feelings begin to stir in the country, fed by the likes of gossip writer Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and actor John Wayne (David James Elliott), eventually leading to Trumbo being part of the so called “Hollywood Ten” brought before Congress to testify about their involvement in Communist activities. They would be sent to jail for a time, then return to an industry that had black listed them. From there, Trumbo works to get around and eventually break the list. It’s all a matter of history, but it’s done in a way that feels important, but also fun as well.
Without question, the big star here is Bryan Cranston, who delivers a supremely enjoyable and theatrical turn as the title character. It’s a large ensemble, but obviously Cranston is the heart and soul of it. He’s clearly having a blast, able to mix comedy and drama, humor and pathos, as well as a bit of dickishness into one delightful package. I don’t know that Cranston will seriously contend for a Best Actor nomination, but he deserves some consideration. Diane Lane is effective in a role that’s slightly more than just a supportive wife, while Louis C.K. continues to prove that he’s an underrated character actor. Michael Stuhlbarg is an unconventional choice for Robinson, but he pulls it off, while David James Elliott amuses as the duke. Helen Mirren is mostly wasted though, as she’s not quite developed enough to be the villain the movie wants her to be. Notable supporting parts are given to Roger Bart, Christian Berkel (as Otto Preminger), Elle Fanning, John Goodman (who steals his scenes) Dean O’Gorman (as Kirk Douglas), Stephen Root, Alan Tudyk, and many more. It’s a strong ensemble, but Cranston is very much best in show.
You wouldn’t necessarily think it, but Jay Roach was the perfect directorial choice for Trumbo. He takes the script by John McNamara and elevates it with understated yet effective work. The score by composer Theodore Shapiro and the cinematography by DP Jim Denault never call attention to themselves, but they’re essential parts of the movie’s success. McNamara periodically loses the balance between comedy and drama in his adaptation of Bruce Cook‘s book of the same name, but it’s only momentary lapses, which Roach is able to overcome. The period details are very solid, while the cast impresses. Roach has an excellent eye for when to go for a laugh, so certain scenes that you might have imagined are played differently than expected. Honestly, the only really issue I had was the pacing is a little slack and the third act is slower than the previous two, but those are small things that just keep a great flick from being even better.
Overall, Trumbo is an unlikely combination for a biopic, but one that manages to really work quite well. If you’re a fan of film history, this is obviously a must see. Cranston is excellent, some of the supporting players like Goodman are terrifically fun, and the whole thing is just plain delightful. This is a movie that’s easy to enjoy, regardless of it can actually contend for awards. Cinephiles who don’t need dramatic material to always be played dead serious will find a ton to like here. Trumbo is one of the more surprising things that I’ve seen this fall. Currently, it’s in contention for a spot on my year end Top Ten list, so that should tell you something…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!