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Review: Trumbo (2015)

Directed by: | 123 minutes | , drama | Actors: , , Diane Lane, John Goodman, Elle Fanning, Michael Stuhlbarg, , David Maldonado, , , David James Elliott, , Madison Wolfe, , Richard Portnow, , , , , ,

In fact, there are two versions of Bryan Cranston: the one before “Breaking Bad” and the one after. Of course Cranston had been a respected actor for years, with nice roles in especially television series (“Seinfeld”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, “The King of Queens”) and occasionally in a movie (‘Little Miss Sunshine’, ). But his status was not such that he was asked for leading roles in major films. That all changed after his ‘starmaking performance’ as Walter White, the good chemistry teacher who turns out to be the most dangerous drug boss in New Mexico and far beyond. Cranston received all the praise, stringing together the nominations and wins for major television awards. You could argue that Walter White opened doors to Cranston that had previously remained closed. Because the now sixty-year-old actor is suddenly interesting for filmmakers. He himself had hoped but never thought again that he would ever win another Oscar nomination and yet that was exactly what happened. For best male lead. Although it soon became clear that Cranston had no chance – after all, the Oscar for best actor belonged to and no one else – it is still a nice reward for this experienced hand.

The role for which Cranston earned that Oscar nomination – and several other accolades – was that of author and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) in the biopic ‘Trumbo’ (2015). Trumbo was one of the main victims of the anti-communist witch hunt that gripped Hollywood in the years after World War II. Trumbo rose to fame for his anti-war novelty Johnny Got His Gun – which earned him the National Book Award – and was known for his left-wing sympathies. When hysteria against the Soviet Union and communism was rampant in the late 1940s, Trumbo was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (colloquially referred to as HUAC) to justify his left-wing sympathies. Because he did not want to cooperate, he was put on the infamous ‘blacklist’ and he had to go to jail for ten months. In the years that followed, Trumbo continued to deliver screenplays and with success – the scripts of ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953) and ‘The Brave One’ (1956) were awarded an Oscar and ‘Spartacus’ (1960) was also written by him. But he did not get the credits, because he was under a false name or with a ‘front man’ (sort of ‘straw man’ who takes his place towards the outside world, but had nothing to do with the script itself).

‘Trumbo’, based on Bruce Cook’s book of the same name, was directed by Jay Roach, a man known from comedies such as ‘Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me’ (1999) and ‘Meet the Parents’ (2000) and for who is this heavy expense. It is clear that the story of Dalton Trumbo, which was turned into a screenplay by John McNamara, is close to his heart. He therefore puts his protagonist on a pedestal. That certainly benefits Bryan Cranston’s performance. His Trumbo is elegant, witty and eloquent, but also vain and full of contradictions. He uses radical language, but looks and lives like a rich person. And for a selfless man, he is very self-centered. He prefers to work on his scripts in the bath, with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey close at hand. He’s such a workaholic that he barely has time for his wife Cleo (a snowed-under Diane Lane) and children, let alone politics. This is Trumbo’s – and Cranston’s – film in every way. Significantly less attention has been paid to the other characters; While there are some excellent actors available with the likes of Helen Mirren (as gossip journalist Hedda Hopper), Michael Stuhlbarg (as actor Edward G. Robinson), John Goodman (as the scruffy but honest film producer Frank King) and the aforementioned Lane, they have ungrateful roles here. Only Mirren sporadically takes her moment of glory. While there are some excellent actors available with the likes of Helen Mirren (as gossip journalist Hedda Hopper), Michael Stuhlbarg (as actor Edward G. Robinson), John Goodman (as the scruffy but honest film producer Frank King) and the aforementioned Lane, they have ungrateful roles here. Only Mirren sporadically takes her moment of glory. While there are some excellent actors available with the likes of Helen Mirren (as gossip journalist Hedda Hopper), Michael Stuhlbarg (as actor Edward G. Robinson), John Goodman (as the scruffy but honest film producer Frank King) and the aforementioned Lane, they have ungrateful roles here. Only Mirren sporadically takes her moment of glory.

Roach turned ‘Trumbo’ into a fairly standard biopic, the course of which can be predicted for experienced film viewers. The film is quite light-hearted, and the political side of the story is only touched upon, which should make it accessible and therefore attractive to a larger audience. But the political narrative is what makes ‘Trumbo’ interesting, so the lack of depth breaks up the film at some point. Fortunately there is Bryan Cranston, who keeps the film going with a strong, layered performance. Thanks to him, we are confronted with the humiliations that Trumbo had to endure during the anti-communist witch hunt, and we see that Trumbo maintained his dignity even in extremely confrontational situations.

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