Trumbo tells the story of famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, whose involvement with the Communist Party led to an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a jail sentence for contempt, and blacklisting by Hollywood studios. Unfortunately, the screenwriting by John McNamara offers little depth to the characters or the issues at hand, causing the true-life story to come across less consequential than it should.
When the film opens, Trumbo is a successful screenwriter. With WWII over, the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism was a concern for many in the United States. Trumbo and others were called to Congress to speak about their Communist ties, but they refused and were cited for contempt. The Hollywood Ten, as they would be known, and others, including those who simply believed in their cause, were unable to find work in Hollywood. For example, Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) had been a supporter and friend of Trumbo, but eventually had to turn on him in order to get back in good standing with the industry. Gossip writer Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) helped create the blacklist by threatening studio bosses she would out them as Jews.
However, Trumbo was a resourceful and driven individual. He eventually found uncredited work for himself and others with low-budget producers the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root, who deserve a movie of their own), but had to increase his output due the minimal writing fees, causing stress on himself and those around him. With Hollywood being a small town, rumors swirled, and by the end of the ’50s, both Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger were not only willing to work with Trumbo on studio projects they were willing to give him screen credit and end the blacklist.
Cranston’s performance earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination. He plays the part well, but the character doesn’t have great range, frequently seen as opinionated, self-righteous, and obstinate. He does show another softer side in some scenes with his daughter, but most times he is looking to fight and win. The conflicts in his life have little effect upon him, which lessen the stakes, as do the portrayals of the people he is going against.
While I am in agreement with the first amendment rights of Trumbo and others about their freedom of speech and assembly, I wish I had a better understanding of the concerns of the anti-Communists. Hopper especially comes off like an evil Disney villain rather than someone who may have had legitimate arguments. Instead, the story comes off as overly biased.
The Blu-ray’s video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Since they didn’t create a period look with the film stock, the colors come through in strong hues. Blacks are inky and contribute to a very good contrast. The textures are impressive. Extremely fine detail can be seen in the typewriter paper material, and yet the make-up looks flawless in high definition. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 offers a pleasant ambient experience that is better than expected for a talking drama such as this. The dialogue is clear and the elements balanced well together for a satisfying sound mix.
The extras are disappointingly lacking for a behind-the-scenes Hollywood story, particularly when you consider that one of the films that led to the end of the backlist was Universal’s Spartacus. “Who is Trumbo?” (4 min) is a brief overview of the film through interviews of cast and director Jay Roach that offers nothing new if one has seen the film. “Bryan Cranston becomes Trumbo” (2 min) is a shorter, inconsequential piece about some cast members liking their costar.
For fans of the classic Hollywood era, Trumbo is a pleasant look back akin to watching home movies more so than reading a history book, and the Blu-ray offers a great HD presentation of the film. Unfortunately, the subject matter and the people involved deserved a more thorough examination.