|'acutely aware of, and interested in, the uncomfortable trichotomy of capitalism, libertarianism and socialism, all of which are embodied by rich, successful, communist party member Trumbo'|
At the heart of what makes Trumbo a good film is the awareness that there's more to life than the movies. I've written about this before, most recently with Criterion's release of In A Lonely Place and it continues to be a bugbear. Hollywood's obsession with itself often leads to a detached navel-gazing that revels not always in glitz and glamour, but constantly in lives so far removed from the every day and cloistered in a microcosm only they know, it can't help but be alienating.
By the half way point of Trumbo all concerns on this level had disappeared. Jay Roach's biopic of blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), succeeds because it is acutely aware of, and interested in, the uncomfortable trichotomy of capitalism, libertarianism and socialism, all of which are embodied by rich, successful, communist party member Trumbo.
The film - and this is simultaneously part of its failings - paints these divisions in clean lines. Trumbo, as the lead character, has all of those ideas within him, but doesn't necessarily externalise them. Helpfully Michael Stuhlbarg's Edward G. Robinson and, to a more obvious extent, Louis C.K.'s Arlen Hird are on hand to help out. Robinson comes to embody the armchair socialist, who can't quite live the ideals he follows. Hird is the died-in-the-wool revolutionary, whose politics are so overt and constantly on the surface that they prevent him from advancing towards any notion of capitalist-defined success. It's not subtle, but it does work and it's a braver exploration of fractured internal value systems than many a film. Supporting turns from actors playing Hollywood heavyweights (David James Elliott as John Wayne, Dean O'Gorman as Kirk Douglas) make the lines between 'good' and 'bad' ideals cleaner.
Though Roach gives admirable focus to those ideas for a large swathe of the film, he can't quite stick the landing, as the conflict's focus becomes much more about whether Trumbo will succeed, rather than whether his ideals will. We're given strong hints early on that Hird will disappear before the end of the narrative and when he inevitably does the film misses the overt externalising voice that he brought with him. Suddenly, we're watching more of O'Gorman as Douglas and Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger and the film drifts into rose-tinted spectacle territory.
Trumbo's family are suggested as a solution to that problem with the now-older Niki Trumbo (Elle Fanning) embodying the ideas that Hird once did. It sort of works but it also feels as though there's a longer cut where the family, and Niki in particular, get the focus they seem to deserve. In reality, Niki played by Fanning is the only one we end up connected to in any way. The fact that at least one of his brood changes actor three times doesn't help, though may well have been necessary.
The fact is though that bigger-posturing, more haughty, biopics have done a worse job of getting to the wider conflict at the heart of their subject, or any conflict come to that. Trumbo does both that and balances a lighter-hearted tone that sees John Goodman swinging a baseball bat at an undesirable office presence. It's difficult not to a like a film featuring those elements.