There's a scene midway through Trumbo, a drama about the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, in which a B-movie producer issues an interfering anti-Communist from his office with a baseball bat. The producer, played by John Goodman as a particularly crass capitalist, is not going to be told who he can hire as a screenwriter and makes the point by breaking a lot of glass and shoving the bat under the bad guy's chin. It's the kind of moment that makes an audience want to cheer: Maybe this plodding movie will finally raise some real emotion out of Hollywood's most shameful hour.
Of course, it is not easy to make the act of writing – let alone not writing – dramatic, but surely a more forceful director than Jay Roach could have turned the story of how Trumbo finally beat the blacklist into a rousing tale about the triumph of free speech. Instead, we get many scenes of Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) at his desk or working in the bathtub, when he is not slyly arguing with friends and foes, as Roach and screenwriter John McNamara wander about, poking their heads up different thematic alleyways but never venturing down them long enough to see if this one or that might actually make a good movie.
Part of their challenge is that this is an incremental story. After going to jail rather than co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the blacklisted Trumbo cautiously and cleverly over the course of a decade got his hands on enough anonymous work to rebuild his career. At a certain point, Hollywood could no longer pretend that it did not know who had written Roman Holiday or the Oscar-winning The Brave One.
It's a tortuous tale and, deprived of a clear line through it, the audience – and the critic – may be reduced to scoring cast members on their ability to mimic the stars of old Hollywood: Ten points for Dean O'Gorman's jut-jawed and stiff-backed Kirk Douglas, eight for Michael Stuhlbarg's clever version of Edward G. Robinson and none at all for David James Elliott's unrecognizable John Wayne.
Cranston, of Breaking Bad fame, plays Trumbo as complex and a bit mysterious. The man is generous and well-meaning to be sure, but with flashes of the tyrannical ego that characterizes many an idealist. Mainly, he is deviously clever and a highly skilled rhetorician – both the script's and the film's best moments are those when he is arguing or manipulating.
Is he perhaps more interested in restoring his lucrative career to its former glory than he is in the principles involved? That is the accusation that fellow screenwriter Arlen Hird (a composite character) makes early in the film, pointing out that Trumbo talks like a radical yet lives like a rich man, but Louis C.K. is badly miscast in the role of the Depression-bred socialist – he makes the man sound far too contemporary – and the doubts about Trumbo's motives go no further.
Certainly, Trumbo's establishment of an anonymous screenwriting sweatshop in his own home was hard on his family – mainly represented by the touchingly earnest Elle Fanning in the role of his fiery daughter Niki – but his one confrontation with her is resolved in a heartbeat. Similarly, Diane Lane's charming version of the ever supportive Cleo Trumbo is given only one scene in which to explode the stress in the Trumbos' marriage, before it's sunny times again.
Helen Mirren gives a delightful performance as the vicious Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist and chief witch-hunter with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, neatly revealing how much self and how little righteousness there is in many a self-righteous crusader. Disappointingly for the audience, this luscious villainess never gets her full comeuppance; we only see her sitting bitterly at home hearing on the radio that President Kennedy has attended a screening of Spartacus, the movie she wanted boycotted after Douglas revealed it was written by Trumbo.
Perhaps Roach and McNamara were too convinced by Trumbo's own insistence that there were no heroes nor villains, only victims, in the whole sorry episode – "… none of us – right, left or centre – emerged from that long nightmare without sin," he once said – and so the film avoids liberal triumphalism in the end. In its place, the director and writer might have turned that long nightmare into a dark political thriller, but no such luck.
Instead, we are left with the painful irony that a film about a screenwriter so good that Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger couldn't live without him suffers from a dull and slow-moving script. Yup, as everyone keeps saying as they fling another 300-page dud onto the desk, there is a story in here somewhere.