Bryan Cranston gives an inspired portrayal of Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter and blacklisted member of the Hollywood Ten during the McCarthy years, and alone makes Trumbo worth seeing. The latest in a series of Hollywood films about that despicable episode, Trumbo dramatizes well the courage it took to stand up to the hysteria of “the Red scare,” even at the cost of doing prison time, a cost Trumbo paid.
Unfortunately, Cranston’s wonderful performance is the only brightness in this clunker. Helen Mirren, ordinarily a fine actor, is unconvincing as Hedda Hopper: the gossip columnist becomes even more grotesque in Trumbo than she was in real life. None of the other performances seem any better than Mirren’s.
Sitting in the darkness and watching Trumbo, I found myself thinking about two storylines implied by the movie.
First, Cranston gives us a dead-on seriocomic sense of the travails of screenwriters, even the premiere writers like Preston Sturgis, the team of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, and Stephen J. Cannell. Trumbo had the special gift that writing well for the movies entails. He could turn out potboilers in a matter of a few days and could turn out his best scripts in mere weeks. He could, in short, play the movie beforehand in his imagination with a sure sense of the expectations of the audience and the crafts of the director and of the actors. Cranston lets you see the master screenwriter at work, and you learn how rare he and she are and how great is the demand for them. Trumbo dramatizes that good scripts are the most essential item in the making of movies as well as dramatizing that typically screenwriters are seldom suitably appreciated and frequently underpaid. In Trumbo, the political oppression of the Hollywood Ten spills over to remind of the general oppression of screenwriters.
The other thought is an old one: Trumbo, it is said by people who knew him, and as was his right, was almost combative in his approval of Stalin. You scorn the punishment of Trumbo by the government. No issue there. But as you sit in the nearly empty matinee theater your mind goes to the question, How could anyone of sound mind approve of Stalin? You don’t credit the Depression, the greed of bankers, the ugliness of pop culture. You settle on the always astonishing foolishness.
Think of The Martian as Robinson Caruso meets Michio Kaku. Stranded on Mars. Lots of high-tech gear around. Matt Damon, the strandee, is a botanist, grows potatoes, ends up communicating with NASA that he’s alive on the Red Planet. How do we get him back? You can imagine. I found it boring from beginning to end. For example, Jeff Daniels is, well, Jeff Daniels, as always, and as opposed to inhabiting the character he is playing, here the Director of NASA. The fine actress, Jessica Chastain, is in a scriptural straight-jacket. The first time I’ve seen her in a cliche role. Nobody else in the movie captures you.
Secret In Their Eyes is implausible, poorly acted, and slow as in crawling crawling crawling along. Chiwetel Ejiotor, an FBI counter-terrorism investigator, and a serious challenger to the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) bad actor, Victor Mature, is in love with DA Nicole Kidman. They stare at each other and nearly rush into each others arms for an almost interminable period: as this slow dance continues, you start restlessly shifting around in your seat and indeed Julia Roberts, a colleague investigator, finally tells Chiwetel to ask Kidman out, Roberts’s tone conveying: Damn it! Do it! He doesn’t, though. Keeps mooning about.
But on to the main story: Roberts’s daughter is murdered and the killer is the perfect bad guy for these times: athletic Slav punk with long hair and an open contempt for everything. The murder occurs near the beginning of Secret In Their Eyes and there is a thirteen year gap in the action until we discover what has happened to the bad guy during that time. What happened to him isn’t believable. Don’t see the movie. If you must, see Wikipedia.