Review: ‘Trumbo’ A Movie Destined To Be Blacklisted

Jay Roach directed Trumbo. Jay Roach? The same Jay Roach who directed the very trite and insignificant Meet The Fockers? The same guy who directed all the Austin Powers films? This is the same Roach who directed HBO’s Game Change, an uneven mostly expose/satirical look at the 2008 McCain/Palin campaign for president. Why would you pick Jay Roach to direct a story about a Hollywood Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, infamous for being black listed by the film industry during the 1950’s? Roach’s idea of being politically neutral is to make it so blatantly obvious which side he’s on that it’s as if a neon sign is pointing towards his end of the political spectrum. Roach’s impertinence is evident throughout the film, as it seems he’s more concerned about his opinion rather than being accurate about transpired during this time period in American History. Trumbo is an unsatisfying mixture of tones ranging from flat comedy to tedious hagiography.

Trumbo was doomed to falter from the moment they picked Roach to direct. Roach’s lack of seriousness in the film makes the product quite frankly uninteresting and ultimately dull at points. Trumbo is such an awkward mess of that I’m not even sure that the studio will realize what went wrong. The most important element of Trumbo that they had to get right was establishing a credible tone for the clashing of ideologies (the clash between Washington and the Hollywood types). Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, and Edward G. Robinson are impersonated by actors who are so unbelievably unconvincing, you wonder if they were cast straight off of America’s Got Talent. Trumbo makes Guilty by Suspicion look like a rousing success as a black list film.

Bryan Cranston takes on the title role of Trumbo and plays him in such an oversimplified manner that his portrayal borders on cartoonish. It was as if Cranston read  “An Idiots Guide To Playing Vilified 1950’s Hollywood Screen Writers” and went right to work. Cranston seems to base his characterization of Dalton Trumbo based on a famous picture (I’m guessing he read that in Chapter One of “An Idiots Guide To Playing 1950’s Hollywood Screen Writers”) of Trumbo writing in the bathtub, cigarette-holder in hand. He plays that image to the extreme. He’s at his height of mimicry during the famous House Un-American Activities Committee rebellion:” Many questions can be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ only by a moron or a slave.”

Even though there are oodles and oodles of Trumbo that are less factual and more mythological, Jay Roach and screenwriter John McNamara still idealize Trumbo as an example of a Hollywood “Maverick.” Yes, he did buck the system, write under a pseudonym, and won Two Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One. Yes, he also wouldn’t submit to the request to testify in front of the House Un-American Acts Committee and went to jail for his deeply held beliefs. What I don’t get is, if you hold someone in such high regard as Jay Roach and John McNamara do, why wouldn’t you make a more serious film about his life? They completely gloss over the fact that he went to jail and the effect that it had on his family. It’s not like they didn’t have a great actress playing Dalton Trumbo’s wife; Diane Lane is as good as it gets. What about the other members of Trumbo’s group of Hollywood Ten that went to prison? It was as if they were part of this movement to show how wrong the House Committee was and then we hardly hear or see them for the rest of the film. Louis C.K., who plays Arlen Hird, had a pretty big part in what actually occurred. And yet, through Roach’s revisionist history his part is reduced to a small part of what transpired. Excuse me, have we forgotten that he was not only diagnosed with Cancer, his wife left him during the hearings? Do you think that could have been explored just a tiny bit?

All that aside, I wouldn’t say that I hated Trumbo, but I can’t help but think what might have been. Trumbo, with the right writer and director, is rich with so many different idiosyncrasies that it could have been a truly great film at a dark time in our nation’s history.


Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
I'm a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and have been doing reviews for many years. My views on film are often heard in markets such as Atlanta, Houston, and satellite radio. My wife often tolerates my obsession for all things film related and two sons are at an age now where 'Trolls' is way cooler than dad. Follow me on twitter @mrsingleton.