“Trumbo” tells the eventful story of the best-known name in the Hollywood Ten, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, with an unsurprising emphasis on the leftist’s misadventures with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Famous and well-paid before HUAC sentenced him and nine other fellow Communist sympathizers and members to jail, Trumbo toiled for years afterward to win back his career, returning to the movies under pseudonyms and “fronts” designed to keep a blacklisted name unconnected to the scripts he was working on (“Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One,” for which his front, Robert Rich, won the 1957 Academy Award) and then being the first to break the blacklist by taking unconcealed credit for “Spartacus” and “Exodus.”
Peter Askin‘s documentary, based on a play by Trumbo’s son Christopher, focuses on what kept the writer, who died in 1976, going, through public humiliation, poverty, and self-imposed exile, along with likeminded cohorts Hugo Butler and Ring Lardner, to Mexico: defiance, righteousness, and the rare ability to laugh at himself. Through interviews with biographers, family, and friends like Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas, Trumbo emerges as an unflappably strong-willed “contrarian” who took what the reactionary paranoia of his time dealt him and more than survived. Because the doc’s origins are from a relative’s portrayal, we’re granted an intimate look at the devoted family man behind the “grumpy, cantankerous” Hollywood intellectual, one just as willing to challenge the telephone company as the United States congress and the archetypes that he “subtly shifted” in his progressive, subversive scripts.
What differentiates “Trumbo” from your run-of-the-mill talking-heads documentary are the A-list actors (Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, and… Josh Lucas?) hired to interpret excerpts from the writer’s novels, letters, and diaries, a chronological collection of staged missives meant to bring Trumbo’s brilliantly penned words to colorful life. The strategy is halfway successful. As in last year’s “Nanking” – which featured a less impressive roster of Hollywood thespians reading letters and journals of Westerners trapped in the pillaged city during the Japanese siege – the interpretations are at their best effectively emotive and at their worst self-servingly showy. Trumbo’s wit comes through in a letter – to his son, no less – detailing his discovery of masturbation, and Lane’s mischievous candidness manages to convey its humor and offbeat attempt at father-son bonding. Neeson similarly evokes compassion in a letter consisting of a long poem about the birth of Trumbo’s child.
But Douglas, Sutherland, Strathairn, and especially Allen (who sheds tears while reading a Trumbo letter to the mother of one of his fronts, Ray Murphy – oh, please) command the stage (a bare chiaroscuro platform containing an occasional piece of furniture and glass of water) with all the presence of small town theater instructors getting a chance to rail against the world in a production of “The Crucible.” Trumbo’s trials are perfect for these actors to display some serious in-house outrage at the evils of Hollywood past, and Douglas and company seem more interested in being cinematically enshrined for their stance on events now ensconced in the hindsighted past than in giving sincere interpretations of Trumbo’s outraged, bitter, and political voice.