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Trumbo (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"A pretty good movie about an all-or-nothing genius."
4 stars

"Trumbo" has what is really a distractingly good cast in more ways than one, especially for those who love movies and as a result have a sharp eye for those involved. Right away, you've got to decide whether you accept Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson (it's kind of hard at first); later on, even small roles seem to have noted character actors like Stephen Root in them. The result is a bunch of people who don't quite disappear into their roles no matter which way you look at it, although it's also two hours of talented people doing things that are worth watching.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), for those who may not know, was a war correspondent, novelist, and screenwriter, and also a prominent liberal who would not cross picket lines when Hollywood was a much more conservative town. Indeed, he was a member of the American Communist Party from before the Cold War poisoned any association with even its best ideals. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, both Congressmen looking to make a name like J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont) and Hollywood insiders like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) started demonizing him and others in a similar situation, resulting not just in contempt of Congress citations (and prison sentences), but a blacklist that kept them from working in any official capacity, though Trumbo would eventually find a patron in Frank King (John Goodman) who would pay, albeit poorly, to have talented writers work on B-movie scripts under assumed names - at least until Kirk Douglas thought of Trumbo for a movie he was producing and starring in, Spartacus.

The creative team behind this movie is an interesting one: Director Jay Roach has mostly done zany comedies (the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies) in theaters but has also done a few TV-movies with this sort of real-life political slant of late, while writer/producer John McNamara has spent most of his career doing television work that has generally been quite good but never hooked audiences enough to get a second season or shook things up enough to make him influential; it's easy to see both wanting to create something that makes more of an impression than being capable but anonymous. They are who they are, though, and that's not necessarily a bad thing - though I suspect that one would be hard-pressed to pick out a memorable moment that is not comes from the filmmakers rather than what are presumably Trumbo's words (by way of Bruce Cook's biography), they tell the story with clarity, finding a good balance between having Serious Things To Say and being entertaining.

The balance of the two goals is tricky, especially since what Dalton Trumbo does - write popular entertainment, secretly and in bulk, is brave but not necessarily thrilling cinema where each step builds upon the last. That means there are a lot of side stories that don't necessarily amount to much - for instance, Trumbo crossing paths during his prison time with people for whom sticking up for themselves meant actual violence that a white jury wouldn't let go is interesting on its own, but seems to basically mark time here, while another blacklisted writer, Arlen Hird (Lous C.K.), has more or less the same story as Trumbo plus cancer. Even where it seems like there might be a progression - he seems initially reluctant to share a labor of love with King but later does so - the reasoning isn't there. The film captures his words, but not always his actions.

It doesn't hurt to have Bryan Cranston saying those words. He plays Trumbo with a bit more theatricality than the rest of the cast, but that's fitting; Trumbo's grandiosity and belief that he can ultimately win out with his words is half of what sets him for a fall. It's an entertaining performance, though, able to charm the audience and get us to believe that people would rally around him despite how abrasive he may be - he gives Trumbo a sort of charisma that isn't quite there with the similarly smart and witty characters played by Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk. He's also got a couple of great reflections in Diane Lane (playing Trumbo's level-headed wife Cleo) and Elle Fanning (as the daughter who shares much of his idealism and stubbornness).

And, of course, there's a crazy-good supporting cast. John Goodman is gold in every scene he's in, for instance, and even if it's a bit difficult to reconcile Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson based upon the characters Robinson often played in classic films, he's still very watchable in his own right. Meanwhile, Helen Mirren and David James Elliott strike the right balance of making Hedda Hopper and John Wayne both kind of awful but compelling enough to see why they were popular figures, with Dean O'Gorman and Christian Berkel similarly entertaining as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger doing similarly good work.

It's easy to list the ways that "Trumbo" falls short of the great movie it could be and overlook that it's a very good one whose strengths are quiet because it's made by people who have quiet skill rather than flashy genius. Perhaps that makes it less than a perfect match between filmmakers and subject, but it's still the sort of entertaining movie that can get its point across without seeming too heavy-handed.

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originally posted: 11/29/15 08:11:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.

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12/06/15 Bob Dog Solid history parable. 4 stars
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  06-Nov-2015 (R)
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