Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s most famous and highest-paid screenwriters in the 1940s, author of such classics as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Kitty Foyle. But because he refused to cooperate with the anti-Communist House Committee on Un-American Activities, he was sent to jail for contempt, and blacklisted for more than a decade. Trumbo even won an Oscar—Best Story for The Brave One—for a film he wrote under the pseudonym Robert Rich, and in 1960 was the first blacklisted writer to regain his screen name when he was credited on Spartacus and Exodus.
Director Peter Askin’s documentary Trumbo is based on an off-Broadway play of the same name written by Trumbo’s son Christopher. The film features interviews with people who knew the writer—Kirk Douglas, Walter Bernstein, etc.—as well as staged readings of letters Trumbo wrote to family and friends, performed by an incredibly stellar, and gifted, cast. But it is just these features—the numerous talking heads and an adoring son’s point of view—that are the film’s greatest strength and biggest weakness.
Trumbo was a colorful figure and often brilliant writer, and the portrait presented here is almost a hagiography, the story of a brave man who stood up for what was right, and always fought the good fight. Yet the writer’s well-known cantankerous nature is passed over in a millisecond, and his statement in an old interview that U.S. Communists of his era “weren’t as dangerous as the Elks” defies credibility, especially given what we now know about Stalin’s extensive spy network in this country. This is not to say, of course, that Trumbo deserved jail, blacklisting or any sort of opprobrium; but a more critical look at the man and his beliefs might have made Trumbo a more nuanced film.
The picture also suffers because the material about the Hollywood Ten and the blacklist has been raked over in so many different venues, it seems staggeringly over-familiar. Sure, the parallels between the 1950s witch-hunts and the paranoia of the war on terror are worth exploring; also how both eras have marked a real Rubicon involving the rights of private citizens and the overreaching of government power. But the clips of crypto-fascists like Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor venting their anti-Communist bile before the Committee have been shown so many times in the past, it’s a simple case of “been there, seen that.” Time to move on.
Last but not least, there are the letter readings, and they are a real mixed bag. Complaints, pleas, impassioned lectures, humorous comments—the range of Trumbo’s work is all there. But some are way too short to make much impact, and at least one—Joan Allen reading a long letter about a young friend of Trumbo’s who had served as one of his “fronts”—goes on way past its expiration date. Yet Nathan Lane steals the film acting out a hilarious letter Trumbo wrote to son Christopher about masturbation. And David Straithairn is magnificent as he forcefully performs a letter Trumbo wrote to his daughter’s school principal, recounting how she has been bullied because of her father’s troubles, and how the educator has done absolutely nothing about it.
It is moments like these that make Trumbo somewhat worthwhile. But the film’s inability to put a new spin on well-covered material, and the way in which it bedecks Dalton Trumbo with the mantle of sainthood, mean the definitive work about this fascinating figure is yet to come.