One would imagine a film revolving around the life of Dalton Trumbo, the prolific screenwriter of classics such as Spartacus, Roman Holiday, and The Brave One, would at the very least contain a strong screenplay. Unfortunately, another post-Walter White performance by the brilliant Bryan Cranston is wasted in a film that tackles an important and relevant subject in a vanilla and tame manner.
In the 1940s, Trumbo was considered to be among Hollywood's most elite screenwriters, but became embroiled in controversy following an investigation into his outspoken support for communism. He, along with ten other screenwriters, were targeted by Congress for spreading communism and fear through their films and protests, and are ultimately 'blacklisted'. After failing to answer questions directly in Congress, and losing an appeals process to a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, Trumbo and his coterie are sentenced to prison. Following his release after eleven months, Trumbo is openly disavowed by major Hollywood actors and producers. This film follows Trumbo's journey to dismantle the Hollywood Blacklist by writing screenplays in a clandestine manner, under various nom de plumes.
Dalton Trumbo, apart from being a brilliant screenwriter, was also a complex individual. In the film, he is primarily portrayed as a knight in shining armor, with little faults. Occasionally, we see someone challenge Trumbo and place him in a negative light. For example, late in the film, as Trumbo's efforts to undermine the blacklist identify, we see him ignore his daughter's birthday altogether. However, a detailed and layered depiction of Trumbo would have further delved into his beliefs outside of Hollywood, such as his support for the morally questionable regimes of communist leaders at the time. While Trumbo's efforts were indeed heroic, an inspection of the grey regions of this entire affair, rather than a black and white portrayal, would have made for engaging and classic cinema.
Behind the camera, director Jay Roach fails to add any flare, and does not seem to particularly enhance what is on screen through his direction. In one memorable scene, Trumbo tells director Otto Preminger that if he wrote every scene in a script to be brilliant, the film would feel monotonous. In response, Preminger tells Trumbo that if Trumbo delivers a script in which every scene is brilliant, he would direct unevenly. In Trumbo's case, both the script and the direction prove to be more uneven than brilliant, leading to a very mediocre and by-the-numbers final product.
Ultimately, the acting anchors and carries the story throughout the film. While many of the supporting characters are one-note, they are salvaged by the acting chops of actors Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., and Michael Stuhlberg, to name a few. From start to finish, however, this is Bryan Cranston's film. Cranston perfectly captures Trumbo's quirks and oddities, whether it be his propensity to write in a bathtub or smoke using a cigarette holder. Cranston's Trumbo is charming, graceful, and strong-willed, all characteristics that make it clear why only this man possessed the ability to turn Hollywood and it's blacklist upside down.
At the foundation of Trumbo lies a timely story, rife with commentary on the rights that all Americans should possess- the right to not only freely speak one's ideas, but to express those ideas in any manner deemed appropriate. Perhaps, most importantly, Trumbo stresses the American right to do and tackle what one does best; in the context of Dalton Trumbo, he had the right to write scripts, to work, and feel a sense of fulfillment. With a stronger script and more cohesive structure, Trumbo would have served as one of the year's most important films. Without those two things, it remains an average film that still deserves to be watched simply for the story it wishes to tell.