Bryan Cranston Can't Quite Carry "Trumbo" To The Promised Land

“Austin Powers” director Jay Roach is no stranger to TV movies (he’s helmed two of them for HBO), so that his Hollywood blacklist drama “Trumbo” comes off as a miniseries masquerading as a movie isn’t exactly a bombshell.

The film covers nearly three decades in the life of American screenwriter and noted Communist Dalton Trumbo (the 1940s-70s), with the title character played impeccably by Bryan Cranston. But three decades of such a richly lived life is a bigger bite than most 2-hour movies can chew. The feature length running time keeps Roach, Cranston, and company from being the serendipitous fit for the material they might’ve been. As it stands, it’s a lovingly crafted but problematically paced picture with moments that rise far above the piece as a whole.

The movie’s greatest treat is Cranston, whose star-making turn in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” has finally afforded him the starring big screen turn he’s always deserved. His portrayal as the mustachioed, politically unapologetic smokestack of a man is as endearing as it is curt, juggling family man and firebrand with the ease of a world-class wirewalker.

Following World War II, a fog of anti-Communist paranoia blanketed the United States political scene, eventually bleeding into the nation’s consciousness and taking particularly strong hold in Hollywood. Amplified by right-wing mouthpieces in both Washington (Joe McCarthy) and Tinseltown (John Wayne), the tide of public opinion turned against anyone and everyone with real or imagined links to radical leftist politics.

Enter the infamous Hollywood Ten, a decuplet of suspected film industry commies who refused to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Trumbo was among them, their actions resulting in the beginning of the blacklist.

The film does cover the hearing, but mostly focuses on its fallout, with Trumbo not only being unceremoniously barred from his industry but doing a lengthy stint in federal prison. All for beliefs that were in no way, shape, or form illegal.

Ideologically, the first half of the picture is as blunt as a rolled up newspaper, perhaps as a guide to uninformed viewers but more likely because it doesn’t know what else to do with itself. It leaps through time and space so frenetically that a throughline of one-sidedness is its only hope.

The supporting cast is similarly wobbly, with striking performances from Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Edward G. Robinson and Alan Tudyk as writer Ian McLellan Hunter and unsure performances from just about everyone else. David James Elliott’s imitation of John Wayne is too broad for the gravity of the subject matter, while comedian Louis C.K. seems utterly uncomfortable as lefty scribe Arlen Hird. Diane Lane is comparably out of place as Trumbo’s wife, entirely underwritten here and given more screentime than story.

That’s not to mention Dame Helen Mirren in a disappointingly slight role. She plays loathsome gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, whose presence is seemingly to paint the insular nature of old Hollywood. That it does, but not much else.

However, Cranston’s performance is a delight and the movie hits a groove with a terrific section about the making of “Spartacus.” “Hobbit” actor Dean O’Gorman makes for a stellar Kirk Douglas and the film’s weaving of new and archival footage is seamless, particularly when it comes to footage of Stanley Kubrick’s historical epic.

When the picture deals with Trumbo’s under-the-table screenwriting (he won Oscars under different names for both “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One”), it flirts with greatness, sidling up to the importance of its subject matter. Otherwise, it’s far too fractured to stand up to the best Hollywood biopics, no matter how good its intentions.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 6, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Bleecker Street
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: John McNamara
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Louis C.K., Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning, John Goodman
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)