In the cliff-hanger television drama Breaking Bad, star Bryan Cranston famously played a high school science teacher who reacted to diagnosis of lung cancer as any self-respecting under-appreciated genius would: he built a drug empire. The actor’s cranky creation Walter White donned a pork pie hat, cooked up A-grade meth and made a tidy sum flogging it to crazy-eyed clientele.
In his Oscar-nominated starring role in Trumbo, a biopic about the legendary two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who penned classics including Roman Holiday and Spartacus) Cranston turns from dealing drugs to dealing scripts.
Trumbo was one of The Hollywood Ten, an arsenal of Hollywood talent incarcerated for being members of the Communist Party. After a stint in jail he was incapable of getting work; like many others part of a blacklist created by the Motion Picture Association of America.
In the film, directed by Jay Roach (who made 2004’s Little Fockers – and thus is far more deserving of a blacklist than Trumbo) the struggling but entrepreneurial scribe turns his home into a sort of bootleg story factory.
Working under a variety of pseudonyms for a B-movie producer and ex-pinball machine salesman (played by a scene-stealing John Goodman), we see Trumbo install five different phone lines – for various identities – and school his children on how to be screenplay mules.
They either whiz around town, depositing manila envelopes into various appreciative hands, or give them to random strange men who arrive at their doorstop looking shifty. The story also a splash of lung cancer – although, oddly perhaps, it’s comedian Louis C.K. who gets hit with it. In a dramatic role he plays a composite character, standing in for Trumbo’s hard-left comrades.
Though it was almost certainly not intended by Roach or screenwriter John McNamara, there is some enjoyment in viewing Trumbo through the prism of a screenplays-as-contraband companion piece to Breaking Bad. Admittedly not the deepest reading of the film, which says something about its overall impact.
Trumbo is the kind of production that might have once been described as television-esque, when we were still in the days when mainstream cinema could legitimately claim to by-and-large deliver superior content to small screen alternatives.
Roach and McNamara reflect on their unfairly persecuted subject through a nostalgia cloud of writer-romanticism. Adoration for the man and his craft is most clearly pronounced when we watch Trumbo bang away at a typewriter, cigarette holder with lit ciggie dangling out of his mouth and a half-empty bottle of whiskey sitting on an oak desk. Or similar scenes where he spends long stretches working in the bath.
Misty-eyed reverence permeates the entire film, mollifying the pointy bits and reducing the impact of the drama. Hasn’t this man been to prison? Doesn’t he care? Trumbo is too-cool-for-school, showing more passion when interrupted in the bath than when in the slammer being asked to “grab your sack” and “spread your cheeks.”
Cranston’s performance certainly has an air of righteous indignation, but feels a little close to caricature. “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiselled into a rock?” asks C.K., addressing the propensity of Trumbo’s screenplay to deliver the protagonist lines of talk-loud-and-say-nothing posturing.
Given the grisly nature of the story and Trumbo’s hard-fought victories (he was ultimately vindicated, and the person responsible for ending the blacklist) there is surely a story here about values of freedom of speech and the susceptibility for creative forces to be compromised by political influence.
Roach appears to think audiences will accept this as a given; bizarrely, he seems averse to exploring a subtext. So when the big speech comes and the world-weary writer reflects on how what happened to him was wrong, so wrong we may be inclined to agree – it’s a gut moral reaction to an obvious injustice, rather than because the film has mounted a case.
Latter portions of the drama focus on family issues, particularly strained relationships between Trumbo and his wife and daughter. McNamara’s screenplay takes the obvious route of imploring the protagonist to reassess important things in life by having them brush up against his workaholic routine. These scenes are, if not wishy-washy, certainly very close.
On the upside Cranston is undeniably charismatic, even if there’s a sense his character sauntered through prison and skip-hopped home: all in a day’s work for an idolised, sketchily-outlined writer. But nobody can deny Roach’s drama status as a leading text in the (admittedly rather desolate) canon of film exploring wordsmiths and their bathing habits. Nor of writers as surrogate drug dealers and Walter White incarnates.