BFI #LFF 2015: TRUMBO Review


Director Jay Roach steps out of his comfort zone with TRUMBO, a biographical drama film starring Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren

Three years after THE CAMPAIGN, Director Jay Roach returns to the big screen with TRUMBO, an American biographical drama film starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, John Goodman and Helen Mirren.

Based on the biography by Bruce Alexander Cook, TRUMBO tells the incredible true story of Dalton Trumbo, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who is blacklisted in the 1940s for his political beliefs in Communism.

Trumbo’s lucrative career came to a screeching halt when, as one of the “Hollywood Ten,” he refused to give evidence to the House Un-American Activities Committee and was imprisoned for contempt. Blacklisted by the Hollywood studios and unable to find work, Trumbo is forced to adopt a series of pseudonyms to provide for his family, secretly penning a number of Hollywood hits including THE BRAVE ONE and ROMAN HOLIDAY, both of which won an Oscar.

The film tells the story of his fight against the U.S. government and studio bosses in a war over words, which entangled everyone in Hollywood from Ronald Reagan to John Wayne. His fight ended in 1960 when powerful Hollywood players like Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger fought to have Trumbo’s name on the credits for SPARTACUS and EXODUS respectively.

Intelligent, engaging and surprisingly funny, TRUMBO is a finely written biographical drama that tackles one of the most complex and fraught political periods in American history. Outside of 1976’s THE FRONT and 1990’s GUILTY BY SUSPICION, you’ll be hard pressed to find a film which even mentions this dark period of screen history, which is surprising considering the way it dominated Hollywood for decades.

Director Jay Roach (best known for directing AUSTIN POWERS and MEET THE PARENTS) steps out of his comedy comfort zone to tackle TRUMBO and his direction is polished, slick and intelligent. McNamara’s well-constructed narrative also deploys a light touch, showing the light and shade of the situation, with plenty of runway for winking jokes about old classics.

TRUMBO’s strength lies in the performances of its cast. Bryan Cranston is outstanding as Dalton Trumbo, bringing intelligence and humour to a complicated man who endured a terrible injustice. His attention to detail in channelling Trumbo’s unique voice and mannerisms is superb and is arguably his finest feature film performance to date.

Helen Mirren sizzles as Hedda Hopper, the fierce, conniving gossip columnist who had Hollywood under-her-thumb. Mirren’s powerful and vindictive performance is excellent, even if her character is not portrayed as darkly as she might have been.

John Goodman also shines as fearless Frank King, a poverty-row producer who has Trumbo, although with other blacklisted writers in business, punching up D-list movies under a series of pseudonyms.

While TRUMBO is certainly entertaining, the film isn’t without its flaws. The focus on Trumbo’s crusade means his family life is a little underdeveloped. There isn’t much for Diane Lane, who plays his wife Cleo, to do except be loyal and supportive, reminding her husband of the times when he is losing himself in his cause. The same can be said of Elle Fanning as his feisty elder daughter Nikola, whose relationship with her father is fascinating but again is undeveloped.

Overall, TRUMBO is an entertaining slice of Hollywood lore about one man’s decades-long fight for recognition, both as a writer and a free man.

TRUMBO made its UK gala premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on 8 October and is released in UK cinemas on 5 February 2016.