There's a good story in Trumbo, about blacklisted screenwriters fighting for their rights and beliefs, and there's a very good performance by Bryan Cranston as the titular Oscar winner, and there's a sense of good fun in seeing which famous stars get questionably cast in the movie and which ones instead live on in actual newsreels. So it's something of a head scratcher that the movie itself is so blandly far from good.
Let's blame Jay Roach, whose lack of any appreciable visual aesthetic makes Trumbo a stifling bore to look at. Roach can't drum up an interesting, meaningful shot in the whole picture, which is a shame when the narrative is concerned with the making of iconic Hollywood classics like Roman Holiday and Spartacus.
There's even a moment on set of a fictional noir pic starring Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg, slightly looking the part, not remotely sounding like it). Roach replicates the crackling sound of a 40s flick, but the black and white photography is as sharply, digitally modern as the rest of the movie's imagery. Hardly an indictable crime of creativity, but still a missed opportunity to lend the experience some texture.
The movie clips along at a fine pace, so give Roach credit for that, but it's so utterly over the top with establishing the David vs. Goliath stakes that the story always feels mechanically manipulative. So the blame has to be shared by writer John McNamara, whose screenplay is absolutely stuffed to the point of bursting with relentless speechifying.
There's hardly a line of dialogue in the movie that isn't setting up a speech about one's right to be a communist or responding to such a monologue. It's clearly the movie's main focus, so there's no harm in giving the subject plenty of attention. But it goes beyond a tight focus and turns practically every character into a walking megaphone, preaching loudly about the importance of standing up for your beliefs at all costs.
The lack of subtlety combined with the robotic spewing of political ideologies makes for a rigid presentation and the cheap visuals further weaken what little effect Roach's pic can muster. Trumbo the movie is just so busy making its protagonist a hero that it loses sight of the human element that's so key to the tale.
There's a brief portion of the movie where the titular character, having been slapped with a prison sentence for refusing to deny his association with the Communist Party, finds himself meaner and more reserved than ever upon returning home. He's a bit of a jerk to his daughter (played at this point by a wasted Elle Fanning), marking the only point of the picture where Trumbo himself is not a saint. Naturally, though, this character flaw is briefly observed and treated with zero consequence.
Cranston at least gives his character a comical edge and a cantankerous spark that sells the occasional smarmy line well and he seems well sunk into the character. It's a solid performance with a very dramatic arc to navigate. Cranston is powerless against the clunky script, though, despite how much effort he puts into the role.
There's certainly a lot of potential here, so it's a shame to see Roach and McNamara squander it. All that potential goodness adds up to a bunch of badness. The real Trumbo probably could have written it better, but Hollywood loves to give actual industry artists the old-fashioned and artlessly traditional biopic treatment. It's like a rite of passage. Trumbo went through hell for much of his career, but was finally vindicated and then got this shiny love letter so many years later. A nice, well-meaning gesture for sure, but its fawning nature and cookie-cutter construction is not what Hollywood does well, but what it so generically churns out.