Some artists work in oils, or plaster. Some use a brush or a chisel. Dalton Trumbo used words, craftily painted on standard white paper with the help of a well worn typewriter. By the time he was in high school, he was a cub reporter for his local Colorado newspaper. After college, he wrote for Vogue, published his first novel, and headed out to Hollywood. By the 1940s, he had won the National Book Award for his cautionary anti-war tome Johnny Got His Gun, and was one of the industries highest paid screenwriters, famous for such films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Kitty Foyle, and A Guy Named Joe. When WWII broke out, Trumbo affiliated himself with the Communist Party because, as he would later argue, “it was the most liberal organization out there.” It was a decision that would come to redefine, destroy, and darken his life—both personally and professionally—until his death at age 70 in 1976.
It’s the stuff of legend, his story as mythical as any poetic Greek epic and twice as telling. When Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee came calling in 1947, Trumbo refused to do the “patriotic” thing and name names. Found in contempt of Congress, he served 11 months in Federal Prison and was systematically blacklisted from his chosen profession. Nearly a decade in the throws of radical national jingoism and un-employability, he escaped to Mexico, finding solace in his fellow exiles Hugo Butler and Jean Rouverol. During his time down South of the Border, he still created, crafted over 30 screenplays, using various pseudonyms and ‘fronts’ to keep his name off the credits. He eventually earned two Oscars—one for 1953’s Roman Holiday and again in 1956 for The Brave One. He was unable to accept either one.
He also found an outlet for his ever-present muse in correspondence. Dalton Trumbo wrote thousands of letters over his lifetime, brilliantly crafted missives on any and all subjects, from love and life to freedom of speech and the risks of dissent. Combined with basic documentary material, these letters form the foundation of Trumbo, a terrific film that makes the wise decision to let this misunderstood man explain himself—in his own beautifully formed words. Read by actors like Josh Lucas, Paul Giamatti, Brian Dennehy, Joan Allen, Liam Neeson, and David Strathairn while using insights from others like Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, and Kirk Douglas who actually worked with the man, director Peter Askin uses Trumbo’s son Christopher’s stage play as the starting point for a vicious denouncement of ‘50s mob mentality, the power in playing the contrarian, and the personal toll such a stance took on everyone close to him.
While the various readings are indeed excellent, each performer capturing difference nuances and hidden treasures in Trumbo’s erudite and eloquent screeds, it’s the facts that remain the most startling. Following along as Askin outlines Trumbo’s rise, watching as he moves effortlessly through the various stages of Tinseltown power-brokering and his various commercial and critical successes tranforms the later sequences into a seething statement against blatant injustice. Balanced brilliantly with anecdotes and celebrations of his friendships, his three children and his amazing marriage to wife Cleo, we get the whole picture, a portrait painted in stellar sentences, expert paragraphs, and well rounded rebuttals. Indeed, one of the greatest joys this film has to offer is the sound of Trumbo’s masterful writing reimagined by actors who get to the very heart of what he has to say.
Still, some subjects deserve more time than others, and it has to be said that the blacklist seems like an afterthought most of the time. Clearly stifled by what Trumbo did (and did not) write about the experience, the documentary loses his all important voice during the height of the Red Scare reign of terror. It could just be a matter of pure audience greed—Trumbo is so dead on regarding other elements of the man’s amazing life (including his introduction to Hollywood and, as Barton Fink might describe it, the “life of the mind”) that when we don’t get the ballsy blow by blow the material suggests, it seems disappointing. Even odder is the rush toward the ending. Kirk Douglas makes an impassioned plea for his role in returning Trumbo to the land of working writer’s via Spartacus, but we hear nothing in the follow-up: how did Hollywood react? How did he manage? What repercussions remained?
Also absent, albeit not completely, is Trumbo’s late in life triumph—the film version of his prize winning tome Johnny Got His Gun. Sure, the movie gets a mention, and Sutherland is on hand for the necessary reminiscence, but like the blacklist section, we want more. As with any truly larger than life individual, 90 minutes of well-intentioned tribute just can’t cover all that needs to be addressed. Still, what’s here is choice, spell binding in its combination of philosophical strength and literary acumen. Make no mistake about it—Dalton Trumbo was a master of the English language. He could turn any subject into a blissful satiric dissertation. One highlight has Nathan Lane’s reading of a letter Trumbo sent to his adolescent son, referencing a book about masturbation. The hilarious (and scatological) language employed is like the lost sections of a great jazz improv.
Even with the gaps and passages that could go on longer, Trumbo is a triumph, a compelling look inside a time in our recent past that keeps threatening to bubble up and retake the present. If we think the blacklist and power hungry professional psychos like Sen. McCarthy are lessons already learned, think again. Indeed, Trumbo would tell you that whenever a society feels scared about the situation it’s in—either positively or negatively—the people always seek out a sacrificial scapegoat as a means of settling their angst. In the post-War world of a United States frightened by its role in the great arms race, the Communist was the easy pariah—and Trumbo and his family paid the ultimate price for their left leaning views. It’s hard to imagine a time when America kept political prisoners—detainees held under lock and key for no other reason than their opposing policy views. In 2009, we’re no further away from such kneejerk reactions. Think again. Like the great artist he is Trumbo’s work speaks as loudly today as it did 50 years ago. Perhaps we should all listen.