Trumbo (Goldwyn, PG-13)

film_trumbo-sm.jpgUnfortunately, rather than trusting Dalton Trumbo to speak for himself, director Peter Askin adds many standard documentary elements to the film.





film_trumbo.jpgTrumbo, a documentary about blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, has its origins in an off-Broadway play by his son Christopher Trumbo which drew heavily on selections from Dalton Trumbo’s letters. The heart of the film remains the staged readings of those letters by an all-star cast including Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, Nathan Lane (who originated the stage role of Dalton Trumbo) and Liam Neeson.

Unfortunately, rather than trusting Dalton Trumbo to speak for himself, director Peter Askin adds many standard documentary elements (interviews, newsreel footage, family photos) to the film. These mesh uneasily with the readings, resulting in a schizophrenic film containing too much background information for people familiar with the period, and not enough for those unfamiliar with it.

Bad choice, because Trumbo’s letters are the real star of the film, and are far more eloquent than anything anyone else has to say. They present a portrait of a complex and often difficult man, unwavering in his personal convictions, fierce in defense of his family (one of the most moving letters describes the harassment suffered by his younger daughter in elementary school) and not without a sense of humor (the PG-13 rating is due to a letter describing the joys of masturbation).

Dalton Trumbo was among the most successful and highest paid Hollywood screenwriters of the 1940s until his principled refusal in 1947 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) brought his career to a screeching halt. Trumbo was blacklisted from the Hollywood studios (which at that time owned both the means of production and the means of distribution for the American movie industry), and was also convicted of contempt of Congress, for which he served 11 months in prison.

Years of financial hardship followed, including an unsuccessful attempt to break into the Mexican film industry. Unable to work under his own name, Trumbo sold screenplays using a variety of pseudonyms (13 in all). Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday and The Brave One were among the films in which Trumbo’s writing was credited to someone else; the latter two screenplays won Academy Awards.

In 1960, Otto Preminger broke the blacklist by insisting that Trumbo be credited as the screenwriter of Exodus, and that same year Trumbo was credited for the screenplay of Spartacus. From then on he received credit for his work (his later screenplays include Lonely are the Brave, The Sandpiper and Papillion) and his name was eventually restored to the blacklist period films as well. But scars remain, as Trumbo stated in one of his letters, "The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one who survived it on either side came through untouched by evil."

Trumbo’s story is relevant today for two reasons. First, because of the courage he demonstrated in standing up for his principles at great personal and financial cost. His life would have been much easier had he cooperated with HUAC or used a variation of the Alberto Gonzales defense ("I don’t remember… I don’t remember… I don’t remember…").

Equally important, Dalton Trumbo showed that it was possible, even within the Hollywood system, to deal seriously with issues like freedom and personal responsibility. Trumbo includes clips from several films which illustrate this point, including Spartacus (if the "I am Spartacus" scene doesn’t set your heart to racing, nothing will) and Papillion. But my favorite is an excerpt from a speech delivered by Richard Burton in The Sandpiper: "I’ve learned that total adjustment to society is as bad as total maladjustment. That principled disobedience of unjust law is more Christian, more truly law-abiding, than unprincipled respect."

If only the film gave us more of Trumbo’s letters, and tried less hard to graft a conventional documentary on to them. Trumbo would also be a better film if Askin showed more trust in the power of Dalton Trumbo’s language and didn’t trick up the readings with odd framings and unmotivated cuts. And here’s a note for some of the actors: Trumbo’s meaning is clear in his words, you don’t need to act them out for us. You’re not competing in the Emo Olympics. Joan Allen, I’m talking to you! | Sarah Boslaugh

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