Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Reel Review: TRUMBO

In the late 1940’s into the 1950’s, Dalton Trumbo was one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. He was king of his domain, but because of his political beliefs, he and his colleagues, nicknamed the Hollywood Ten, were blacklisted from working in Hollywood. It is one of the darker, and more interesting times in not just Tinseltown but in America itself, and comes to life in TRUMBO.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), one of Hollywood’s top-paid screenwriters, refuses to testify in front of a congressional committee investigating communism in America, and is blacklisted from working in Hollywood. Undeterred, Trumbo and his team of writers begin writing under fake names in secret, and wind up writing some of the best films of the decade.

It was a turbulent time for America. The Second World War was over, but the fear of communists working in secret in the U.S. with the intent of overthrowing the government was growing, and one of the targets, and tragedies in that time was Hollywood. TRUMBO for the most part is how Dalton and his friends, who considered themselves members of the Communist Party simply as a way of expressing their freedom of speech, are persecuted for their beliefs. As Dalton begins writing in secret, the film becomes a joy ride through Hollywood of the 1950’s, showing how heralded films such as SPARTACUS and EXODUS came to be with a writer who could not attach his name to the work. Fans and students of the history of film would find TRUMBO to be a joy.

Where TRUMBO stumbles a little is with the family dynamic. Once things get difficult for Dalton to earn a living, naturally his family life begins to suffer, specifically with his wife (played by Diane Lane), and oldest daughter (Elle Fanning). While the acting is superb, there are too many sub-plots and moments within the family that go nowhere; Dalton’s over-reliance on popping pills to stay awake during overnight writing sessions is given time but never goes anywhere, and a huge blowout-fight between he and his daughter is given a lot of attention but is apparently resolved off-camera, as it is never mentioned ever again. TRUMBO gets the story behind the motion picture business perfectly right, but has little idea what to do with the family life.

Director Jay Roach films a colorful looking movie in bringing back to life the whimsy and innocence of 1950’s Hollywood. The tone is light, the pacing is brisk, and the moments of humor are true knee-slappers. Archival footage is mixed perfectly with the movie, and TRUMBO never bores.

Bryan Cranston is fantastic as Dalton and completely vanishes into the man himself. Diane Lane is her usual magnificent self, and is still a stunner on-screen. Elle Fanning also turns in a very good performance, as does John Goodman…who plays a B-movie producer who hires Dalton in secret. Helen Mirren appears as a gossip columnist who aligns herself with the anti-communism portion of Hollywood, and comes off as a fantastic screen villain. Louis C.K. pops in as the angry writer providing comic-relief and is very entertaining, and Alan Tudyk is his usual brilliant self. The cast of actors playing famous faces are also excellent, including Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson), Dean O’Gorman (as Kirk Douglas), and David James Elliott (as John Wayne).

After a finale which is not as emotionally rewarding as it thinks it is, TRUMBO finishes off with a nod towards history and perhaps a wink towards our present day, where people are persecuted for what they believe in, and not for what they actually do. It isn’t preachy, and it works…but TRUMBO still feels like a very un-even film. It is a fascinating look at a dark time in Hollywood; it just needed a little more soul.


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