Often, biopics feel to me as if they are cheap cash-ins – sometimes deliberately having their release delayed to coincide with related real-life events. Work on Jobs, for example, first began as Steve Jobs left Apple to focus on his health. Production began the year after he died. Zero Dark Thirty was originally supposed to be about to be about the Battle of Tora Bora, and was apparently about to begin shooting when Osama bin Laden was killed. Immediately the film was scrapped and rewritten to focus on that, instead.
This isn’t to say that all anyone involved wanted was to make money or that nobody cared about making a good movie – it just feels rushed and forced. Obviously, though, it can go either way in terms of success; Zero Dark Thirty was met with critical acclaim, while Jobs holds a 27% approval rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.
Trumbo simply feels more genuine – at least to me. Ironically, many are saying that it’s not nearly as historically accurate as it claims to be. This might be true, I couldn’t say. I know of the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (not to be confused with the musician Dalton Trombone), who wrote Spartacus and Exodus. I know of his prison sentence and his time on the Hollywood blacklist, and the two Academy Awards which he won but could not claim due to having hidden his identity. According to some, the film’s accurate depiction of events ends here. As I wasn’t alive during the events of the film and have discovered dozens of conflicting reports during the course of my research, I’m going to go ahead and judge the film on its own merit, as I generally do in situations where the subject of discussion is not advertising itself as a documentary. Trumbo is glorified, but not in all aspects of his life. He’s shown to be a less-than-perfect father and husband, a sometimes-selfish and certainly manipulative man. I liked this very much, especially in the context of a “true story”. This isn’t a good man. He’s not a bad man, either. He’s just a man, flawed and human.
Like last year’s Bridge of Spies, Trumbo is the story of a man who is turned upon by his own country for doing what he feels is right. The film covers Trumbo’s subpoena to testify before Congress, his deliberate contempt for the process and the untimely death of a Judge on whom he and his friends were counting for their appeal. He’s sent to prison, and upon his release cannot find employment without using pseudonyms or having other screenwriters take the credit for his scripts. Eventually, finally, he is allowed to put his own name back onto his work. When this finally happens, when Trumbo leans back in his chair, and tears well in his eyes as “screenplay by DALTON TRUMBO” appears on the screen, I wanted to pat him on the back and shake his hand.
Bryan Cranston gives an incredible, Academy-Award-nominated performance (but will he take it from Leo? I don’t think so), and his supporting cast is excellent, one of the best line-ups I’ve seen in years. Diane Lane and Louis C.K. (apparently he can do drama, who knew?) shine as Cleo Trumbo and Arlen Hird, respectively.Madison Wolfe, playing Trumbo’s daughter for a portion of the film (before she grows up), is a fantastic child actor as well. There are simply no weak links in the cast, many of whom I haven’t even mentioned. John Goodman has some screen-time as Frank King, and carries the best scene in the entire film, where he promptly and violently demolishes his own office.
There are some obvious flaws, mostly in regards to clichés and tired tropes. The film of course ends with some nice white text over black backdrops, letting us know what happened to the people portrayed in the film, with some photographs added in for effect. We get some archive footage weaved throughout the film that felt more gimmicky than anything else. Director Jay Roach blends comedy and drama well, giving the film some lightness while maintaining the gravity that it needed to extract its desired sympathy from the audience. Having only directed comedies in the past (this is he guy who brought you Austin Powers and Meet the Parents), he doesn’t seem to have much trouble delivering dramatic biopics, either.
It’s not quite as good as Bridge of Spies, but Trumbo still manages to be a biopic worth seeing. It’s slow without being boring, light without being funny. It manages to baby the audience without insulting them (“Daddy, what’s a communist?”), and, even if it does clash with the truth, still comes off as an enjoyable movie.