Classic Film Icons Tarnish in TRUMBO (2015)

TrumboJohn Wayne rarely played the bad guy in his nearly half-century film career, but he finally gets the chance in TRUMBO, Jay Roach’s uneven biopic of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) are presented as the primary antagonists in this fascinating, yet oddly unmoving, examination of Hollywood’s post-World War II Red Scare. It’s a bold – and perhaps not entirely historically accurate – choice in a film that pulls few punches, particularly when it comes to icons.

Other classic film legends who catch narrative shrapnel: MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), who gives in to Hopper’s red-baiting and retaliatory threats; Universal head of production Edward Muhl (Mark Harelick), who opposes Kirk Douglas’ hiring of Trumbo to pen SPARTACUS (1960) after a failed effort by novelist Howard Fast; director Sam Wood (John Getz), who nearly decks Trumbo after a poolside filibuster; and “Buddy Ross” (Roger Bart), a craven composite of producers Dory Schary and Walter Wanger. Even Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) are depicted as less-than-heroic in their competitive, near-simultaneous decisions to give screen credit to Trumbo (as writer of STARTACUS and EXODUS, respectively) after more than a decade in the pseudonymous shadows.

Faring worst of all is Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stulbarg), who sells out the leftie screenwriters whose leanings he once loyally supported. While Wayne is depicted as a bullying hypocrite for questioning the patriotism of “subversives” while he himself avoided military service, Robinson is branded as weak and cowardly. His verbal takedown by Trumbo is the closest the film has to a true moment of catharsis, and our final view of him – old and alone at a 1970 ceremony honoring the writer – clearly communicates how Roach and screenwriter John McNamara want us to feel about him. (McNamara’s screenplay is adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the same name.)

helenI should mention that none of the actors playing these icons are particularly up to the task, save for Mirren, who’s likely to score an Oscar nominee for her go-for-broke portrayal of the vile, shrewish Hopper. I was genuinely shocked at how bland Stulbarg and Elliott are as Robinson and Wayne, two of the most charismatic performers from the Studio Era. Only O’Gorman comes close to capturing the preening charm of Douglas. And make sure to watch for the excerpt from SPARTACUS in which O’Gorman is digitally inserted in the action. It’s brilliantly done.

Faring the best of the historical portrayals is John Goodman as schlock producer Frank King of the notorious King Brothers, who kept Trumbo and his blacklisted buddies employed as part of an ingenious screenwriting front that rendered the blacklist impotent. Chomping on a cigar and swinging baseball bats at government lackies, Goodman’s King may be the most uncomplicated and sympathetic character in the film, save for Diane Lane who makes the most of her heroic spouse role. Elle Fanning is also memorable as the daughter who carries on Trumbo’s legacy of political advocacy, and Louis C.K. is fine as a composite, blacklisted screenwriter character, though he pales next to the brilliance of Bryan Cranston and has too much screen time.

I’ve never seen Breaking Bad, so Cranston is somewhat of a revelation to me. And what a revelation he is. From the toast of Hollywood to the indignities of a jail cell, his Trumbo is a complex, mercurial, often unlikeable hero. He’s as much of a self-serving hypocrite as every other Hollywood player portrayed in the film, and he knows it. Cranston in on screen for most of the movie, and there’s not a single false note in his performance.

TRUMBO is not a great film; it sometimes has the discount patina of a made-for-cable period drama. But Cranston, Mirren, Lane, Fanning, and Goodman are close to perfection. If you’re fascinated by both the faults and the triumphs of the classic film era, this is a must see.

TRUMBO is in theaters nationwide. To find out where it’s playing in your area, click here

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About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in Slate.com and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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14 Responses to Classic Film Icons Tarnish in TRUMBO (2015)

  1. Julia Ricci says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this film, Will. I’ve been waiting for a review from a classic film fan’s perspective. Sadly, the movie doesn’t hit my neck of the woods until Thanksgiving.

    I haven’t seen ‘Breaking Bad’ either (only the pilot), but I did see Cranston on Broadway in ‘All the Way’ and his performance as LBJ was tremendous. I’m excited to see him as Trumbo.

  2. Dan Day Jr. says:

    I thought I was the only one who never watched Breaking Bad!!

  3. Kathy says:

    Oooh, I hope you are wrong about this movie. I’m looking forward to it.

  4. Like Julia Reed said, I’ve been waiting for a review from a classic movie guru and I was glad to read your take. I can imagine how fabulous Cranston, Mirren, Goodman et al are, but am sad to hear that other actors didn’t capture the charisma of Wayne and Robinson.

    Thanks for sharing this review.

    • willmckinley says:

      It’s very difficult to play an iconic actor, I think, because their screen persona is so fixed in the public consciousness. ESPECIALLY if you love the era, as classic film fans do.

  5. Ive never watched Breaking Bad either but I hear Bryan Cranston is a fantastic actor – and what you said here about him proves that point. Truthfully, I don’t know if I’d be up to seeing this film. I’d rather read it in book form. I don’t know how to explain it, but when it comes to classic film non-fiction I’d rather immerse myself in a book instead of watching events depicted on the screen.

  6. I hadn’t heard about this film until I read your review (admittedly, I’m a bit out of the loop on movies during November… it’s NaNoWriMo!), but I’m always interested in movies that tackle the topic of censorship. Adding this one to my “Must See” list!

  7. Gio Potes says:

    agree with your last paragraph. it is much of an exposé

  8. pwlsax says:

    Pulled a few punches – I’d like to have seen Hedda Hopper throw a table lamp at her TV set in the last scene, when JFK is leaving the theater where Spartacus has played, stuff like that – and it would be nice to see Otto Preminger played without a bizarre King of Siam accent. Also, notice how the guys’ coat lapels got wider thru the 1950s instead of narrower?

    In general, good entertainment.

  9. Patrick says:

    I have a friend who swears black and blue that Edward G. Robinson never ‘named names’, and indeed the Wikipedia article on EGR seems to bear that out. If he didn’t, surely Robinson’s descendants will sue. No?

  10. Faring worst of all is Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stulbarg), who sells out the leftie screenwriters whose leanings he once loyally supported.

    Edward G. Robinson never outed anyone as a Communist. All he did was repudiated some of the organizations that he had either belonged to or had donated money to, claiming that he was a dupe. But he never named anyone. I haven’t come across a historical figure this mis

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