Monday, September 19, 2016

"Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been..."

For several years now, the Academy has nominated more than just five Best Picture contenders at each year's Oscars. But even in an expanded category, there will always be movies that wind up being thought of as the "almost made it"s. According to some critics, one of those from last year was Trumbo.

Trumbo is a film about the infamous 1950s "black list" of writers banned from working in Hollywood for their perceived communist sympathies. It centers in particular on Dalton Trumbo, portraying major events from his life throughout that decade: going to prison for contempt of Congress, finding a way to continue writing in secret, and fighting to end the political discrimination against him and his peers.

The film does a good job of taking history that could be made light of ("poor Hollywood writer couldn't win an Oscar with his name on it") and painting a broader picture for the audience ("actually, family man struggled to keep money coming in"). There's a vital, topical message here, as America never seems to tire of demonizing people with unpopular politics(/religious affiliations/general "otherness").

That said, while the film is solidly made, it does at times feel like it's ticking all the expected biopic boxes in rather workmanlike fashion. You can definitely recognize a few liberties taken with the story to fit the Hollywood script mold, and the emotions stirred sometimes feel manufactured. The facts themselves here are sometimes more powerful than this telling of them... at least on paper.

But elevating that script are several excellent performances. Bryan Cranston stars as Trumbo, and received an Oscar nomination for his work. I appreciate the naturalness of the performance; he delivers the chest-thumping message moments without it feeling like he's reaching out to the Academy voters with an open hand. (Though maybe if he had, he could have won?) There's also wry, thoughtful work here from Diane Lane, Louis C.K., and Alan Tudyk.

Then there are the actors clearly enjoying themselves. Popping up in smaller (but fun) roles are John Goodman, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Root, and Roger Bart. Doing great celebrity impressions are David James Elliott as John Wayne and Dean O'Gorman as Kirk Douglas. And Helen Mirren throws herself completely into playing one of the heels of the piece.

I can see how this was an "almost miss" for Best Picture, because even though I enjoyed it, I'd grade it about a B+. Still, that's plenty good enough for me to recommend it if you have any interest in the history, or simply in watching a great cast do its thing.

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