Bryan Cranston received his first Oscar nomination for portraying Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo.
Trumbo is a film that decides to give its story a certain style as though it is a film from the period in which the story takes place. Well this is somewhat misguided as it seems to believe that all films from the period were a bit overacted, which was not the case. Now we get a series of imitations throughout the film ones of very prominent actors including John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Edward G. Robinson. Michael Stuhlbarg as Robinson does the best job out of those by actually not focusing stiffly on imitating the man's mannerisms and voice. The imitations extend to somewhat lesser known figures like Otto Preminger and Hedda Hopper. Hey, even Alan Tudyk portrays Ian McLellan Hunter as though he's giving a bad imitation, even though most people probably have no idea what the real Ian McLellean Hunter was like. This choice extends to Bryan Cranston's leading turn as the titular Trumbo, which to be fair it is unlikely that one could wholly shy away from if they tried given his mustache, cigarette holder, and an apparent affection for working while bathing. Cranston does indeed embrace this, going head first in bringing to life Trumbo's particular way of speaking and his physical idiosyncrasies.
Now to Cranston's credit he actually does match Trumbo's real life ways fairly well, but dials them just a few notches past normalcy. I won't say he goes too far, since he very much goes for a comedic excess. This is understandable given that the film wishes to be a comedy some of the time. It's after all directed by Jay Roach who got his start in broad comedies, and you know when broad comedy directors...alright I won't go over again. Any who the film's tone tries to mix comedy with the drama of the situation, which does not work too well in about the first twenty minutes of the film. This extends to Cranston's performance where it seems a few slices of ham could be trimmed off of Trumbo as he flaunts his superiority of wit at his opponents, the problem is this also extends as he's just spending time with his family. Cranston's overt approach though does find its place when Trumbo is put in front of HUAC. His excess actually really works in the situation as he finds the right combination of humor and passion as Trumbo goes upon taking on the committee's questions by asking a few of his own. Thankfully after this scene Cranston also dials down his performance considerably, and seems to become far more comfortable in the role.
This is probably more likely a side effect of Cranston depicting Trumbo as his ego has been deflated somewhat due to legal defeats, and facing jail time, either way it's a good thing. It becomes far easier to accept Cranston in the role, and his performance grows far more effective. Cranston thankfully is not ruled by his mannerisms and is able to find what lies beneath it all to reveal actual human qualities in the man, not just being a caricature of him. After Trumbo is let out of prison the film basically jumps around, not necessarily in a bad way, as it follows Trumbo as he deals with the large number of different people in his personal and professional life. The film puts much upon Bryan Cranston as he basically must jump around the various hurdles placed in from him in order to match whatever tone is required for each character and situation. Cranston manages to balance it rather well in the lighter situation such as dealing with the schlock movie producers he goes to work for, where Cranston offers just enough of a sardonic touch while staying fairly dead pan in dealing with the men who are even more extreme than he is. He nicely plays it up just a bit more when Trumbo jokes about their situation with the other writer who have been blacklisted.
In turn when dealing with someone adamant about the blacklist, such as Hedda Hopper, Cranston brings the right quiet disdain and disgust as he almost tries to avoid a direct confrontation. Cranston is wise to contrast this in the scenes where he deals with people who have named names in order to avoid their own careers being ruined. Although Cranston still conveys a definite disgust, he carefully relays an undercurrent of sympathy in his condemnation that keeps his Trumbo from seeming overly self-righteous. Then there is Trumbo's most personal scenes with his family which are jumbled in a way, since we never are shown a natural flow from one scene to another. It's either Trumbo telling them a new plan of his, showing concern for them due to outside threats, or yelling at them for not doing exactly what he demands of them. Although we mostly get glimpses of each of these sides, Cranston performs each quite well. He brings the needed energy as he tries to almost boost the family's moral. When he sees the hardships of his family, as well as some of the other writers, Cranston is moving by earnestly depicting Trumbo's quiet empathy for others. Then in his most negative side Cranston is good in portraying a strong bluster, that he makes a bit thin, which actually effectively conveys the idea that it in part comes from the stress of his situation. Cranston's performance works in realizing the film's intent for Trumbo, which is as the triumph of an individual over some sort of establishment. It even ends with a speech to sum his whole journey up. But again to Cranston's credit he delivers it well by only ever bringing an emotional truth to his words. Though I do think he makes a few missteps in his performance, most of them being in the just the opening twenty minutes, Cranston delivers a fine leading turn that one would expect from this type of biopic.