Bryan Cranston’s ‘Trumbo’ is a fun but forgettable portrait of a Hollywood icon

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The world has changed a lot since 1947, or at least we like to think that is the case. We like to tell ourselves and anyone we meet who is visiting the U.S. that we live in a country where people are free to think, feel, speak and believe whatever they desire, but in all honesty that isn’t exactly true. People are free to do as they please until someone or some group claims their behavior is a threat to the freedoms other people enjoy. When that happens, those who are accused of wrongdoing must apologize for something they don’t believe is wrong, or else they run the risk of being further persecuted by the general public. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it is the world we live in.

Trumbo, which stars Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston as iconic screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, tells a true story set half a century ago that feels almost too topical for comfort when projected onscreen in 2015. The plot follows Trumbo, as well as some of his closest acquaintances in writing, as he comes under fire from a group of the Hollywood elite who believe the self-proclaimed communist is quietly working to bring down American ideals on behalf of Russia through his work in movies. It’s a baffling accusation that Trumbo and his cohorts initially write off as a bit of silliness, but once the U.S. government takes an interest in the screenwriter, the seriousness of the situation doesn’t take long to set in. The group of men fight for their rights in court and ultimately lose, which means each must spend time behind bars. It’s something none of them saw coming, and it proves to only be the start of their problems.

Once free, Trumbo and his cohorts have a hard time finding work because of a new thing called the black list, which is essentially a collection of people who are believed to be working for Russia in secret. Anyone on the list is unable to find work in Hollywood, which leads Trumbo and his friends to seek alternate paths to success. The solution, at least for Trumbo, is to begin delivering screenplays to studios under various pseudonyms. As soon as he pens another hit he believes the studios will forget about the black list altogether and allow everyone to return to work. After all, who is going to say no to a man responsible for writing the year’s biggest films?

It doesn’t take a film major to draw comparisons between the events in Trumbo and modern life. The past half-decade has seen a strong resurgence in political correctness, with more and more people crying foul over seemingly innocuous quotes or happenings. Trumbo caps off a year where public outcry swayed more conversations than any political or cultural pundit could count, and it offers more than enough reason to fight for the freedoms promised to every man, woman and child in our nation’s Declaration of Independence. No one has the right to tell you how to think, feel, write, worship or otherwise live your life. People might not agree with you, just as you will most likely not agree with everyone you meet, but we all have to find a way to live in harmony. When we forget that fact, our culture begins to crumble. It takes a vast and dynamic set of personalities to create the world we live in, and to silence even one voice would irrevocably change the life we now know.

Director Jay Roach has a lot of ground to cover with Trumbo, and thanks to a briskly paced script from John McNamara he is able to showcase the entirety of Trumbo’s war against the industry without missing any key moments. Unfortunately, the rushed feel of the story eliminates many opportunities for real emotional depth to be reached, leaving the best moments of the film to hit with far weaker impact than one might expect. The film is never funnier than a chuckle and rarely more frustrating or depressing than a frown. It’s vanilla, which is fine, but it could and quite honestly should be so much more.

The saving grace of Trumbo is its cast, which is lead by a freewheeling Bryan Cranston delivering a career-high performance. His take on Trumbo is one befitting the unique personality of the iconic screenwriter, with cigarettes and thought-provoking thoughts on the way life should be to spare. He’s supported by the likes of Louis C.K., who showcases a set of dramatic acting talent that has not been previously seen, as well as a cast of notable names like John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning, Diane Lane, and Michael Stuhlbarg. David James Elliott also appears, albeit briefly, as John Wayne. His delivery alone is worth the price of admission, but I do recommend staying for the full film.

I doubt anyone will see Trumbo and walk away feeling as if they have had anything other than a good time, but the life of Dalton Trumbo deserves something with more depth than what John McNamara is able to accomplish with this film. The performances are great and the everything flows nicely, but the lack of emotional connection really hinders your ability to connect with the action on screen. You want so badly to cheer for Trumbo as he battles and eventually overcomes his foes, but the film never engages in a way that compels you to feel much of anything for what transpires. It’s fun but forgettable, and considering the art the man behind the story gave the world, that is a damn shame.