Trumbo isn’t a subtle film. Neither is it a great film. But for many it’s an enjoyable film, and I happily count myself among that number.
I figured a film about Trumbo and the blacklist would play down the actual communism and focus more on broader criticisms of McCarthyism, and the film largely did just that, but a few scenes were fairly specifically communist. One scene sees Trumbo give his daughter a speech that basically sounds like a positive TV commercial for communism, and Louis CK’s character often actually espouses specific communist values rather than vague “sharing” and anti-capitalist ideas. The clearest message, if one wishes to pull one from the film, seems to be McCarthyism is bad and extremely dangerous, and that the amount someone tries to actually understand and empathise with groups different to them is proportional to how much destruction you could bring to people perhaps undeserving of it.
The cast was generally very strong. Cranston is as brilliant as anyone familiar with him would expect. Louis CK was a bit of a disappointment for me, he’s good in the film but some line readings just don’t land right, and I know he can act better than this. John Goodman and Stephen Root are great but get little to do. Diana Lane, Helen Mirren, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all very strong. I wasn’t as impressed with Elle Fanning (whose character probably suffers most from the biopic structural conventions), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, or Alan Tudyk, but I think that was more the script’s fault than theirs. The visuals of the film are generally good, the direction is often workmanlike but never painfully average or anything. The lighting tended a bit too much towards the muddy at times.
Parts of the film, mainly in the first half, avoid the dread biopic problems – awkward compressions of time, clumsy attempts to force a complicated life of a complicated person into a three-act structure, wink-wink appearances of famous elements of the person’s life – but they do rear up more and more by the end. While none are particularly egregious, the number of moments like “gee whiz, that Stanley Kubrick sure works us hard” gets frustrating eventually. On the other hand, I thought the actual portrayals of figures like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas were surprising nuanced.
Ultimately I do feel like the screenplay was, ironically, the weakest part of the film, as the typical biopic conventions held it back from being as great as some of Trumbo’s actual screenplays. The passion behind the film, a railing against the tendency to demonise minority ideologies, dull the populace with near-meaningless buzzwords to other those politically different, media and politicians fostering us vs. them narratives maintaining a constant sense of society being invaded and the dominant way of life being unfairly persecuted – all this passion was heartfelt, and scenes focused on the evil of McCarthyism were strong. But the typical bipoic structure weakened the film and muddied its message. After seeing two brilliant films dealing with real-life figures this year (Steve Jobs in the eponymous film, and Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy), it’s hard to not regard Trumbo as something as a disappointment. It’s a good film, and one I deeply enjoyed, but it could have been a great film, and it’s a shame it wasn’t.
I give it three McCarthyist plots, and a half-eaten sandwhich.