Universal // R // $34.98 // February 16, 2016
Review by William Harrison | posted February 21, 2016
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The politics and opening act of Trumbo, based on the life of the Hollywood screenwriter, are messy, but this Oscar hopeful provides a more compelling second act, complete with plenty of familial drama for its leading man. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) leaves pratfall comedies further in his rearview mirror, and Bryan Cranston is excellent as Dalton Trumbo, who was jailed for contempt of Congress after his less-than-forthcoming testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The cast is stacked, and Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning and John Goodman all pass through the frame in support of Trumbo's story. The film is nicely assembled if slightly generic, and I wish Roach and screenwriter John McNamara had focused more on Trumbo's acclaimed screenplays.

Hollywood loves a good story about its own players, though it falls on the proverbial sword here for its treatment of Trumbo in the mid twentieth century. The screenwriter aligned himself with the Communist Party in the 1940s, and was effectively banished from working on Hollywood productions. His early works include Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Kitty Foyle, and he is best known for writing Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. In the opening scenes, Trumbo's career hits a new high, and he becomes the highest paid writer in Hollywood. Trumbo is also a war veteran, recent Communist, and family man to his wife, Cleo (Lane), and children, Nikola (Fanning) and Chris (Mattie Liptak). Trumbo advocates for underpaid Hollywood workers, which infuriates loud talkers like actor John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren).

The film struggles to find its niche in this opening act. The politics are messy and overbroad, and Trumbo pushes the writer's family and talents to the background. Things improve considerably when Trumbo is jailed for eleven months after the United States Supreme Court fails to bail him out for his testimony before Congress. The film then takes a personal turn, as it is Trumbo's family that suffers the most. He becomes obsessed with the cause and writing outside the Hollywood studio system, and Nikola feels especially neglected. Louis C.K. is particularly good here as Trumbo's friend and fellow advocate Arlen Hird, and Lane's Cleo gives quiet resistance to Trumbo's frequent bathtub writing sessions.

Interesting are scenes depicting Trumbo writing under pseudonyms and giving credit to others. He did not get recognition for several projects, including the Oscar-winning Roman Holiday, until years later, and it is not until Kirk Douglas demands Trumbo get writing credit on Spartacus that the tide turns. I wish Trumbo had focused a bit more on what makes the man a great talent, but Cranston does a wonderful job highlighting the ludicrousness of the Hollywood blacklist. Trumbo does not make the heaviest emotional impact of this year's Oscar contenders, but it is a nice vehicle for Cranston's abundant talents.



The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image supports the period-appropriate costumes and production design with lush detail and well-defined texture. The earth tones are appropriately saturated, and shadow detail is abundant. Indoor scenes offer wonderful depth and realism, and outdoor scenes are deep and crisp. Fine-object details, like Trumbo's moustache and bathtub writing station, are presented without flaw. I noticed no compression problems or banding.


This is a talky film without major effects, but the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track suits the material. Dialogue is clear and without distortion, whether delivered from the center or surround channels. Light ambient effects like wind and traffic noise pan the sound field, and the musical selections are given appropriate weight. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.


This single-disc release includes a code to redeem iTunes and UltraViolet HD digital copies. The standard case is wrapped in a slipcover. The extras are light: Who is Trumbo? (4:02/HD) features a few remarks on the real Trumbo, and Bryan Cranston Becomes Trumbo (1:59/HD) is a brief piece on the actor's work in this film.


Bryan Cranston is excellent as blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in this drama. The film struggles early on with politics and focus, but becomes more involving once the drama comes home. Not the most memorable of this year's Oscar contenders but still a solid film, Trumbo is Recommended.

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