As necessary as it is for the realm of criticism, I don’t like writing negative reviews. It’s too easy to dwell on a given movie’s failures and inadequacies, and negativity will always be less useful than positivity.
But I hated Trumbo even more than I hate writing negative reviews.
Trumbo, newly crowned with unearned nominations from the Academy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, and, most ignobly, the Writers Guild of America, is a shoddy wreck of a film, a complete misfire on nearly every level, as self-satisfied as it is myopic, and as grand-standing as it is laughable.
Dalton Trumbo was one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history, a man who wrote such classic films as Roman Holiday, Spartacus, Gun Crazy, Papillon, Kitty Foyle, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, as well as dozens of other screenplays, as well as novels, plays, short stories, and essays. The film Trumbo tells his story, focusing on the time in life when, newly returned from World War II, Trumbo was one of many film professionals who were blacklisted from the industry for their left-leaning political beliefs and their refusal to “name names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Trumbo introduces us to its title character (played by Bryan Cranston) in the middle of his writing process, pipe dangling from his mouth, fingers quickly zipping around his typewriter in a manic drive of passion, and as the credits roll there is a series of dissolves showing the posters of Trumbo’s many pre-war films, as well as the numerous awards and commendations he has racked up as the highest-paid writer in Hollywood.
Then the film transitions, to a black-and-white 1.37: 1 image. We are in a movie inside a movie, it would seem. Character actor extraordinaire Michael Stuhlbarg plays Edward G. Robinson in this film-within-a-film, nicely suggesting Robinson on and off-screen without doing cheap impersonation. The Robinson character is a gangster or thug of some kind, intimidating a poor sap who lies on the planks of a waterfront dock, under the shadow of Robinson’s gun. As I watched this, I searched my mind. What film was this? I could’ve sworn that the real Dalton Trumbo had never penned an Eddie Robinson gangster picture, but perhaps I was wrong. I put the thought aside until after the film was over, when I did some research and found out that the “film” shown within Trumbo was entirely fictional, which did not surprise me, but instead led me to draw some conclusions.
Y’see, the thing is, that fake movie, that product of writer John McNamara’s imagination, is the longest glimpse of Dalton Trumbo’s writing that we get in the film. And yet he never wrote it!
My issue, to be clear, is not that the screenwriter took liberties with the facts — that happens all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with it conceptually — but that for a film that positions itself as a celebration of the writing of Dalton Trumbo, the film is almost utterly uninterested in the actual writing of Dalton Trumbo, or worse, thinks modern audiences are too stupid to understand it. For the rest of the film, we’ll see brief glimpses of Trumbo’s movies, but they never make up more than a few seconds. We see bits — both actual footage and recreated dramatizations — of Spartacus, but we hardly get to take in the dialogue, and Trumbo’s Oscar-winning film The Brave One, is limited to the briefest of shots of that film’s most bombastic images, which Trumbo, as a writer, had nearly nothing to do with. It is indicative of the film’s overall failure of artistic spirit: more time is spent on Dalton Trumbo accepting awards or watching the Oscars on television than there is on his actual work.
And if the film fails in showcasing Trumbo’s work, it does even less for his political beliefs. The real Dalton Trumbo, a card-carrying Communist, was subpoenaed by Congress for failing to denounce his Communist beliefs, and was a strong anti-war activist. This is in the film, but it is treated with as much interest as an actual Communist might show in the Home Shopping Network. By watching Trumbo you could glean nothing about the character of Dalton Trumbo’s beliefs regarding income inequality, arms manufacturing, racial prejudice, or any political topic whatsoever beyond the fact that he doesn’t want to be thrown in jail.
So this film fails as a celebration of writing, and it fails as a political examination. But what about on a character level? Oh, lord, does it fail there too.
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo delivers one of the worst performances by a great actor that I have seen in a long time. He has completely and utterly miscalculated his performance, playing Dalton Trumbo almost as though he is inside of a giant plush “Dalton Trumbo” character at Disneyland, and that he has to sell each and every one of his character’s emotions through the broadest and most obvious of gestures. His performance is all limbs flying akimbo and a broad, Thurston Howell III accent. Given a mustache that I could swear gets larger and more ornately curled with each passing shot, Cranston’s Trumbo hardly seems to be a human being, and his thoughts, emotions, and motivations are buried beneath layer after layer of tics and mannerism. If one were to tell me that director Jay Roach, who coached Mike Myers to subtle heights as Fat Bastard in not one but two Austin Powers movies, had only given one direction to Cranston, and that direction was, “Your character thinks he is constantly milking an invisible cow,” I would not necessarily believe them, but I would not laugh them out of the room either.
If Cranston’s Trumbo is a mountain of confused and misplaced tics, the other characters are molehills of nothingness, from Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, exemplifying what Emma Thompson called the “Don’t Do the Brave Thing” wife characters that actresses of a certain age seem to get stuck with, to Helen Mirren’s right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who appears to be animated by a spirit of antagonism without so much as a single cogent or debatable political philosophy. Mirren’s Hopper is motiveless villain, neither loathsome enough to be truly hateable, nor sympathetic enough to come across as a real human being, and, as played in the film, is clearly no intellectual match to Cranston’s Trumbo, who is given the dialogue with the most SAT words, so we know he must be smart.
Even the likeable Louis C.K. is utterly out-of-place in the film. As Arlen Hird, a fictional screenwriter and friend of Trumbo, the comedian takes the opposite approach to co-star Cranston, choosing to play his character is an absolute minimum of period mannerisms or over-the-top actions. The result swings too far in the other direction, with Louis C.K.’s “Hird” sticking out like a sore thumb among the other actors, who are all at least trying to seem like they’re from the 1950s. C.K. appears to have been transported from the set of his FX original series to a 1950s soundstage and the result never gels, even with the weakness of the material it’s supposed to gel with. Even worse, his character is burdened with the best/worst case of Movie Disease I’ve ever seen. Diagnosed with lung cancer early on in the film, Arlen Hird alternates between spending entire scenes as a half-living manifestation of poor health, slouched over and coughing up blood into a hanky, barely able to finish a line of dialogue, with scenes where he appears no different from anyone else in the film. Essentially, when he needs to be sick, the film makes him sick, when he needs to be well, the film makes him well.
Dialogue is execrable. Characters walk in to deliver lines that state things both they and the other characters in the scene would already know. In one scene, Trumbo and his teenaged daughter (a game Elle Fanning, fighting like hell against this terrible script) spend all of six seconds discussing segregation. “Can you believe it?” asks the daughter. “Democrats voting for segregation?” With patrician sagacity, her father responds “Southern Dixie-crats!” his index finger pointed in the air for emphasis. Ah, yes, thank you, filmmakers, for that middle school level understanding of 1950s politics.
The film’s understanding of film history is as circumspect and rudimentary as its understanding of national politics. In a scene of Walk Hard-esque proportions where Kirk Douglas (played by dead-ringer Dean O’Gorman) drops by Trumbo’s house requesting rewrites of the Spartacus script, faux-Douglas is given this humdinger of a line: “I’ve never had a director who’s as big of a pain in my ass as Stanley Kubrick.” And hold for laughter. Applause, too, maybe.
The whole circus reaches its climax in an awful scene where Trumbo, receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild, delivers a speech to the audience (both of them, that is) denouncing the blacklist, as Cranston is decked out in a shiny white fright wig and a false mustache that is roughly Cadillac-sized.
The whole enterprise is pitched at the level of a movie meant to be shown to bored high schoolers on a day when the civics teacher is hungover. Yet even on that level the film fails: as a primer on post-war politics it is underwhelming; as an introduction to Trumbo’s writing it is utterly inadequate; as a treatise on the freedom of speech it is entirely preoccupied with its costumes and sets; and as a peak into 1950s Hollywood it is entirely superficial and cheap.
There remains one area where Trumbo retains value as an education tool: as an example of what not to do when writing a screenplay.