Post-WW2 Hollywood; American Capitalist ideals strongly oppose that of the American Communist Party. Top Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (here portrayed by Bryan Cranston), an outspoken member of said party, struggles to maintain his career, his family life, and even the safety of his own identity in this turbulent tale of sordid scrutiny and political upheaval, thinly veiled by Hollywood's 'Golden Age'.
With a resume that includes such comedies as Meet the Parents  and the Austin Powers series, this is not necessarily a story you'd expect director Jay Roach to tackle. Based on the biography by Bruce Cook, John McNamara's script doesn't necessarily focus on Trumbo's life, rather the effect that his blacklisting, incarceration and professional struggles have on his family and friends.
On paper, these are the ingredients for a meaty, challenging narrative that speaks across generations, but at times it seems as if Roach is so distracted by the fact he's shooting a period piece that the audience is reliant on strong central performances to carry them through what feels like a somewhat exhaustive two-hour runtime. With sideline impersonations of silver screen democrats such as John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), that are at times questionable, one must ask,"'is this director trying to break out of his mould?"
Trumbo certainly helps to answer this question but it does not provide a clean break. For much of its length, it's played too straight to be a comedy, but at the same time not necessarily moving or impacting enough as it should be, especially given the focus it has on Dalton Trumbo as a man and as a character. Audiences who do not view this film in a cinema may be fighting temptation to start playing with their iPhones as the film plods along with no clear dramatic arc.
Bryan Cranston as Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
Still, with terrific performances from Cranston (who does well to break away from his 'Heisenberg' persona), Diane Lane as his worrisome wife, and Helen Mirren as antagonistic Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, the film has all the ingredients of an Academy Award contender, but falls short in its contemporary societal impact and relevance.
Consequently, this film will most likely be enjoyed by fans of Cranston's work, and film-going audiences who already have some knowledge of the people, places, and events depicted. As far as performances are concerned, special mention should also given to Louis C.K. in a dramatic turn with the "big drama dogs"; a skilful move as Oscar time nears.
Democratic columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) gets the scoop from Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)
Some wonderfully reserved and rough-edged performances, a fascinating story (to the right audience), and some tastefully wicked humour to boot, Trumbo is compelling enough, though a little overstated and slightly underwhelming. Narratively, it is engaging, but not particularly focussed, as Cranston's protagonist seems the only common thread at times.