“Who the hell has the luxury of friends? I’ve got allies and enemies.
There’s no room for anything else.”
Around this time of year, people start using the word “snub” a lot. The Oxford Dictionary defines a snub as to “rebuff, ignore, or spurn disdainfully”. For real-world context, it’s the thing you do when that one drunk guy who keeps walking past you and nearly bumping into you in the bar finally decides to come over to you and say something crude or horrible in an attempt to a) get your number or b) start a fight with you.
In terms of movies, a snub is when commentators, reviewers and film buffs feel like a truly great movie has been over-looked in the awards nominations in favour of films which, perhaps, didn’t deserve those nominations in the same way. It then gets rolled around after the awards for when those same people feel like one of the films which was nominated was then over-looked in the awards. The finest example of that this year was Carol; a brilliantly-acted film with a complex and challenging story, which received numerous nominations from the Academy, but ended the night with no Oscars to its name. The morning after the Oscars I went on to the BBC Leicester Breakfast show to discuss the results and brought this up, to be met with the comment “that’s a difficult subject matter for Hollywood”; which was arguably the reason why it should have won an Oscar somewhere.
But before we even get to the Oscars ceremony, we have Trumbo. Based on the biographical book of the same name by Bruce Alexander Cook, Trumbo follows the life of Dalton Trumbo, who was one of Hollywood’s most talented and prolific screenwriters in the 1940’s, until Washington’s crusade against anyone who openly observed socialist politics post-World War II resulted in both his incarceration as part of “The Hollywood Ten”, and his placement on the infamous Hollywood Blacklist. Starring Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo, the film has a huge array of talent (Helen Mirren, Louis C.K*, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk and so many more), and begins just as Washington is setting up the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate those with “communist sympathies”.
I bring up snubs in relation to this film because it was, simply, incredible. It received one nomination at this years’ Oscars, that being Bryan Cranston’s first ever nomination in the Best Actor category (one which was, unfortunately for him, always going to DiCaprio). This nomination was truly deserved; Cranston’s emergence as an incredible character actor following Breaking Bad was destined to lead to a role like Dalton Trumbo, and the transformation he goes through before and during the film is incredible. If you aren’t familiar with the real Trumbo then you, like I, won’t realise just how on-point Cranston’s performance was until the end credits, when a few photos of the real Trumbo are displayed. Cranston manages to fully realise every aspect of Trumbo’s physicality throughout the entire film, identified clearly by the various bathroom scenes (I won’t give away the details of those here because it will reduce the impact of the first one for you, though they’re perfectly tasteful). Cranston’s range is incredible, and as Trumbo’s situation becomes more and more desperate, the insight into the psychology of such a driven and, at times, desperate man is wonderfully realised and perfectly suited to an actor of such skill.
The supporting cast is, as mentioned, outstanding. Louis C.K. puts in a star performance as screenwriter Arlen Hird, another of the Hollywood Ten who, having not achieved the same level of success as Trumbo prior to the investigation, struggles with the changing situation a lot more. Hird’s passion and drive manifests very differently to that of Trumbo and is played incredibly by the comic, whose superb comic timing is fully utilised; but still out-shadowed in this piece by the heart and emotion he brings to the role.
Helen Mirren and Diane Lane both shine as well, but for different reasons. Mirren plays Hedda Hopper, a former actress who now writes an opinion and gossip piece on the workings of Hollywood for the Los Angeles Times, and demonstrates perfectly the depth of her character’s intentions and motivations in the first 10 seconds she is on-screen, backing the position up for the rest of the film. Finding herself directly at odds with Trumbo’s political stance, she works to ensure the Hollywood Ten and other communist Hollywood workers are named in the press to assist Washington’s investigations.
Diane Lane puts in a stunning performance as Cleo Trumbo, the devoted wife who supported Dalton Trumbo throughout his entire fight with Washington and Hollywood. The role is played quiet and considered by Lane, who communicates more through expression than words for the majority of her time on screen; but when the moment comes and the chains come off, her performance is as powerful and important as any other in the film.
The challenge with a film like this is when it becomes time to portray those with a greater sense of notoriety; and Trumbo’s story results in him crossing paths with some of Hollywood’s biggest names at the time. The result is seeing two stunning supporting performances, one from David James Elliot as John Wayne, the other from Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas. The accuracy with which two of the eras’ most famous actors are brought to life in this film is incredible and both deserve props for their portrayals.
In my reading around the film, I’ve noted a few instances of people claiming historical inaccuracies regarding the portrayal of important people and events involved in the story of Dalton Trumbo. Having known very little of the story of the Hollywood Blacklist before seeing the film, I couldn’t comment further, other than to speculate as to whether that was partially why this film may have missed out on other awards nominations which it arguably deserved. Or was it simply that the Academy didn’t feel it wished to reward a film which highlights such a dark period in the history of Hollywood; including the history of the Academy itself? There’s no way of knowing. But what I do know is that Trumbo is a brilliant film, marked out for the performance of its lead actor, but is also a fantastic ensemble piece that showcases some of the great character actors working in the film industry today; and shines a light on a dark time in American film history.
This review was originally produced for The Grade in 2016.
*Comments about Louis C.K. were written before the revelations about his character and actions became public, and have been left unedited to reflect the author’s original response to his performance, but are not an endorsement of him as a person.