After the Campaign: Trumbo

There’s a good political history lesson in last year’s Trumbo, but it’s a bit buried. The movie, of course, tells the abbreviated story of Dalton Trumbo, one of the most popular and successful screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Played by Bryan Cranston, we see Trumbo start out at the height of his profession, about to sign a lucrative MGM contract. But his ties to what at the time were considered politically radical ideas, particularly his self-identification as a Communist and his association with others far more active in the movement than him, become liabilities as America gets deeper into the Cold War and the accompanying Red Scare era.

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Eventually Trumbo and some of his colleagues are called before the House UnAmerican Activities Commission, where they more or less refuse to name names or answer questions. That leads to Trumbo being sent to prison for a year. When he comes out he can’t get any work with the Blacklist in full effect. So he launches a scheme to get him and his other writer friends who have been similarly banished back to work, writing B-movies under pseudonyms for a small independent production house. Their activities do not go unnoticed, though, and it’s not long before Trumbo in particular is back in the big leagues, even if he has to continue hiding his involvement.

The movie was marketed as a light, breezy historical drama that would tell yet another story of the Blacklist era and the rampant abuses of Congress, the misguided actions of the major Hollywood studios and the heroic – or at least conniving – actions of Trumbo and his compatriots. But that’s not quite how the actual film turned out.

Instead it’s pretty heavy-handed in its moralizing. At one point Arlen Hird (played by Louis C.K.), who’s a much more dyed-in-the-wool activist than Trumbo, is exasperated and asks why everything Trumbo says sounds like he’s expecting it to be chiseled in stone and that’s a fair critique of the movie as a whole. There are rays of light, particularly everything John Goodman says as the head of the small production studio that makes crap and which hires Trumbo to rewrite the schlock they release.

In short there’s none of the style and verve that the trailer had. That bounced along to a jazzy beat and promised snappy dialogue. Instead what’s delivered is much more stodgy and formal. While I did like the movie overall, it didn’t match the tone of the marketing at all and the campaign is missing some key elements of the story, particularly the time Trumbo spends in jail, which is a significant part of the character arc that’s on display.

More than the story, though, the marketing was concerned with selling Cranston’s performance in the title role. On that account it succeeded, though again the full performance is tonally different from what was on display in the trailer. More than that, it’s remarkably one note in that there’s very little in the way of a character arc. He starts out as a wise ass screenwriter who’s too smart for his own good and pretty much ends in the same place, just with a few more miles on him. Meaning all that adversity he goes through doesn’t fundamentally change anything about him, it just solidifies beliefs and behaviors that were already in place.

Again, the movie isn’t bad and it’s well worth watching. But while it tries so hard to be an allegory for the kind of thought crime that’s now on display in this country by replaying a historical incident about the same kind of thought crime, it never really connects the dots, relying too heavily on sermonizing than on establishing relateable characters and an intriguing story.