Trumbo can easily be reduced to one word, and that word is “ironic.”
The film tells the relatively true story of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a communist screenwriter who won two academy awards for Roman Holiday and The Brave One despite being blacklisted from Hollywood as a result of the red scare at the time. The film details his refusal to cooperate with Congress, his 11-month prison stint and his return to Hollywood work through the use of pseudonyms with King Brothers Productions. He eventually revealed that he had been working the entire time he was on the Hollywood blacklist in a move that invalidated it and eventually lead to its dissolution.
It’s ironic that a movie about one of Hollywood’s better writers has dialogue that is so weak. John McNamara in his first ever feature-length script doesn’t seem to know how human beings interact with each other. Everything anybody says comes directly from their ideology. Imagine two people trying to have a conversation, but they can only use direct quotes form Marx or De Ambris. Even if the conversation is coherent, it doesn’t sound like two people talking, and that’s the problem. Trumbo is full of conversations that sound like a skit in which Uncle Sam is directing you toward the most patriotic conclusion.
It’s ironic that a movie villainizing McCarthyism aims to stir the same blind fervor that lead to it, this time on the liberal end of the spectrum. The U.S. is the opposite of an exclusionary state, and McCarthyism revolved around the idea that it’s patriotic to exclude communists — obviously misguided. Trumbo, in the same manner, talks at length about how great America is and then holds up an ideology as unpatriotic. While the demonized thought process is highly questionable, that doesn’t eliminate the paradox.
Going further, it’s ironic that this is precisely the movie the House Un-American Activities Committee was afraid of when they targeted Hollywood. Trumbo straight-up endorses communism in a manner that’s uncomfortable far beyond the political system’s inherent polarizing nature. This problem probably traces its way back to McNamara’s poor script more than any intentional ideology.
Trumbo is tediously standard Oscar bait, the kind I’ll never understand. Where blockbusters move lazily from set piece to set piece hoping something will impress the audience, this movie moves lazily from Cranston soliloquy to Cranston soliloquy, hoping one of the film’s few moments of appeal will be enough to clinch a trophy. Movies win heaps of awards every year on this kind of marbled structure, in which a lot of the movie is disposable, and it doesn’t make any sense. Compare this to Ex Machina or Steve Jobs, movies that keep the same tone and stay at the same level throughout, and Trumbo doesn’t look like an awards candidate. It barely looks like a movie.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. And what happens when an invulnerable cheater comes up against an elitist corporate dictator? I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.