How could a movie about a great screenwriter have such a terrible screenplay? In his first feature film script, John McNamara (writer for TV shows like Aquarius and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) adapted Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography Dalton Trumbo, and learning apparently nothing from the work of the two-time Oscar-winner, surmised that volcanic self-congratulation, stock characters, crass exposition, and relentless clichés would somehow make a successful movie. Directed with a disappointing lack of finesse by Jay Roach, who blurred political lines so entertainingly with HBO’s Game Change, Trumbo contains an egregious two-plus-hours of moralizing scenes from the life of the man (played by Bryan Cranston), bloated with the helium of a momentous lesson for all of us to learn: Blacklisting was bad.
Trumbo was drawn to the American Communist Party’s antifascist elements in the 1940s (his 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun is a masterpiece of war opposition), but in 1947 he refused to answer questions while testifying before the ludicrous House Un-American Activities Committee. The obvious conflict and drama are organic in his story — how did he grapple with the perversion of the goodwill ideals he held? And how did he weave those into his script, say, for 1956’s The Brave One? But unlike Lincoln (which condensed a great man’s life into three months) or Steve Jobs (which condensed a great man’s life into three scenes), Trumbo goes the all-inclusive Wikipedia route, spanning its biopic platitudes across decades and even climaxing shamelessly with an elderly Trumbo receiving a standing ovation while accepting a honorary award.
Cranston is fortunately better than the material, fully embracing the arch voice and lurching pantomime of the scotch-swilling, chain-smoking writer. His talent and charisma permits hope that HBO’s adaptation of the Lyndon Johnson play All the Way, starring Cranston and directed by Roach, might be good. It is depressing, though, to see the fine supporting cast all reduced to types: Diane Lane as “the loyal wife,” Elle Fanning as “the angsty daughter,” Louis C.K. as “the best friend,” Helen Mirren as “the witchy villain,” and John Goodman as “the crazy boss.” Ultimately, each of them is nothing more than a megaphone to valorize Dalton Trumbo for his triumph over victimization. But undoubtedly Trumbo himself would be uncomfortable by that righteous simplicity. He understood that no movie and no person is infallibly great merely for being on the right side of an issue. D+