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3 out of 5 stars

This biopic of the Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted for his Communist sympathies is too mushy and Oscar-friendly to fully convince

Joshua Rothkopf

Time Out says

‘Daddy, what’s a communist?’ a young girl on a pony asks her rich and famous screenwriter father. Brace yourself for dialogue like this in Jay Roach’s earnest, too-soft biopic of Dalton Trumbo, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who fought his way back from the anti-communist postwar blacklist. In ‘Breaking Bad’ Bryan Cranston mined unlikely humour from meth manufacturer Walter White’s teacherly manner. But here, as the fussy, pompous Trumbo, he’s let down by a script that, for the most part, papers over the ‘Spartacus’ writer’s legendary severity. Instead, ‘Trumbo’ goes for a tone that’s more inspirational.

We watch as Trumbo is sent to prison in 1950 for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and name colleagues with communist sympathies. Broke and blacklisted, after his release he churns out scripts under pseudonyms, building a network of fellow outcast writers and winning two Oscars undercover.

Around Cranston are performances that supply sparks of the grittier film that might have been. Michael Stuhlbarg (‘A Serious Man’, ‘Boardwalk Empire’) plays an actor who goes from supporting Trumbo to selling him out, and Helen Mirren is the poisonous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (the film could have used more of her viciousness). Is it too much to ask of a movie about writing that it devote some time to the ego that often drives such careers? Communist or not, Trumbo swanned around on a wave of self-regard. Roach, whose television gigs (HBO’s ‘Recount’) reveal a tendency for tidiness, gives us someone closer to a fallen angel.

Release Details

  • Release date:Friday 5 February 2016
  • Duration:124 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:Jay Roach
  • Screenwriter:John McNamara
  • Cast:
    • Bryan Cranston
    • Helen Mirren
    • Michael Stuhlbarg
    • Diane Lane
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