Literate doc explores a man of letters
Directed by Peter Askin
Cast: Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, Joan Allen, Michael Douglas
The average American will be forgiven for not knowing the name Dalton Trumbo. A generation ago, he was the poster child for free speech, unfettered artistic expression and the consequences of government run amok. Today, he at least rates a paragraph (more or less) to himself in most film history textbooks.
Trumbo the film attempts to reintroduce Mr. T. to the medium that birthed him back in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Far from your average talking-head-and-archival-footage documentary, Trumbo is based on the stageplay by Dalton’s son, Christopher Trumbo. The play was basically a staged reading of Trumbo’s letters to his offspring. In them is revealed the epic, tragic, comedic scope of Dalton Trumbo’s wild life. For a period of some 40-odd years, Trumbo was H’wood’s go-to typewriter guy. A Bill of Divorcement, Kitty Foyle, I Married a Witch, A Guy Named Joe, Roman Holiday, Spartacus, The Sandpiper and Papillon are just a sampling of the 60-odd screenplays Trumbo cranked out.
In 1947, however, Trumbo was accused of being a Communist. (He was a member of the antifascist, pro-peace Popular Front during World War II.) Branded a Communist sympathizer by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and blacklisted as one of the notorious “Hollywood Ten,” Trumbo found his career in serious jeopardy. Thanks to friends in the industry, however, he continued to work under pseudonyms until pal Kirk Douglas insisted he be openly credited for his justifiably famed Spartacus screenplay in 1960.
As in the stageplay version, Trumbo’s letters are interpreted (read aloud, basically) by a series of noted actors. Nathan Lane, who founded the part in the 2003 play, is back. But he’s joined by the likes of Brian Dennehy, Joan Allen, Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson and Michael Douglas. It’s kinda like Love Letters or The Vagina Monologues, but interesting. In addition to the letters, we also get interview clips, archival footage of the HUAC hearings lorded over by Sen. Joe McCarthy and some touching home movies. Interviews with Christopher Trumbo and his sister Mitzi are especially enlightening, shining light on the time when the Trumbo clan and many of the other Hollywood Ten packed it up and hid out in Mexico.
The film expends a lot of effort trying to establish Trumbo as one of the greatest screenwriters of his generation. Actually, he spent most of his career churning out respectable but rarely noteworthy B-pictures for Warner Bros. Better is Trumbo’s ability to simply showcase its cantankerous subject in all his witty, hyper-verbal glory. In recycled interview footage, Trumbo comes across as a stubborn, outspoken and ultimately charming old crank. His letters, drafted during his largely fallow period in the ’50s, literately expose HUAC as the unconstitutional, anti-American villain it was. Then again, angry letters to the phone company and an essay to his son on the virtues of masturbation speak just as clearly to Trumbo’s eloquent verbal skills.
By focusing so myopically on its titular subject, Trumbo misses the opportunity to paint a clearer picture of just what happened with the HUAC hearings and the Hollywood blacklist. How, for example, the blacklist was finally broken isn’t clearly spelled out. The lessons of those times can’t be repeated often enough. Then again, maybe that’s another movie. Trumbo is a portrait of one man; and as such, it’s an enlightening one. It shows (and tells) how he raged against the machine, refused to back down, put his feelings and experiences into everything he wrote, used his words as a weapon and paid a hell of a price for it all. We should all be lucky to possess such conviction—or to have a father who did.