The awards season is already overcrowded, and there are many big hopefuls yet to be seen. So Bleecker Street’s “Trumbo,” which screens at the Toronto Film Festival Saturday and opens domestically Nov. 6, is hardly a slam-dunk. But the film has some advantages, including a protagonist and subject matter that are of interest to Oscar voters.
Some members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will vividly remember the blacklist era of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Others have a vague knowledge, but will lap up the details that the film provides.
The film won’t be an easy sell to the general public. “Trumbo” won’t appeal to everyone, but it will draw the PBS crowd, the ACLU/civil-rights group and the Hollywood folk. And that adds up to enough people for awards attention.
Every year, some films are ignored by critics groups, yet rally when Oscar nominations are announced. “True Grit,” “American Sniper” and “Selma” are just a few recent examples of pics written off by pundits, only to do very well with Oscar. “Trumbo” could join that group because the film has many virtues that won’t necessarily appeal to critics, but seem irresistible to Academy members.
Despite being blacklisted and imprisoned, Dalton Trumbo was driven to continue writing. In the film, his underlying motivation is “Even though I’m not being hired, I’m still talented, still a person of value!” That is a similar message to “The Artist” and “Birdman” — and a theme familiar to everyone in the film industry (including Academy members) who are always going from job to job.
“Trumbo” is also an actors’ showcase. The script by John McNamara and direction by Jay Roach cover a lot of territory, showing national tastes, politics and the state of Hollywood studios over decades. But the spine of the film is its one-on-one confrontations between Trumbo and various people in his life, providing juicy scenes for Bryan Cranston with Michael Stuhlbarg, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Louis C.K. and Roger Bart, among others.
It’s also about honor and integrity. In most films, the protagonist comes to a point where he/she must make a moral choice. But in “Trumbo,” all of the characters are forced to constantly make such decisions, and it’s an area that few other films address so directly. (It’s been 20 years since “Quiz Show” covered some of the same territory.)
It’s a crowded field for actors again this year, so Cranston has a lot of competition. But he has justifiably been the focus of awards buzz so far. After his performances in “Breaking Bad” (Emmys) and Broadway’s “All the Way” (a Tony), he again shows his versatility and lives up to the old bromide “star of stage, screen and television.”
As a bonus lure, Oscar and the Academy play a small but important role in the film. Dalton Trumbo understood the importance of awards in raising public awareness of social concerns. That idea itself is reassuring (i.e., awards are reflections of the times, not frivolous ego-trips). And while the film comes down hard on Hollywood studios and their cowardice, some individuals (and the Academy itself) are treated with balance.