Mitzi Trumbo/Samuel Goldwyn Films
Peter Askin/United States 2008

Dalton Trumbo was certainly a man of ideals, and one with a remarkable sense of conviction in them. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his personality as evinced in the documentary film Trumbo, was the steadfast persistence with which he spoke out for what he believed in, even when doing so cost him his livelihood and, later, certain relationships. So it’s too bad that this film lacks a corresponding conviction about what it wants to say about him.

One of the infamous Hollywood Ten, Trumbo was blacklisted in 1947 after refusing to provide information to the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about the Communist Party’s activities among the Hollywood community. In 1950, he served nearly a year’s sentence in a federal penitentiary for contempt of Congress. He spent the rest of his life speaking out against the HUAC trials and the obstruction of free speech. Much of this effort took shape within the letters which Trumbo – quite the prolific writer in all genres – wrote to a wide variety of individuals during his professional exile.

Several years ago, Trumbo’s son Christopher teamed up with director Peter Askin to produce a stage play about his father, using letters from the recently published book Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo as the basis for the story. The performance consisted of two actors, one as Dalton and one as Christopher, sitting onstage and reading a series of letters in between bits of narration. As might be expected, the film “adaptation” (also directed by Askin) adds a bit more to the mix, including archival interviews with Dalton Trumbo himself, more recent ones with Christopher Trumbo and other relevant individuals, as well as archival footage from the HUAC proceedings.

Still – and surprisingly – segments of the film in which actors give staged readings of the elder Trumbo’s letters ultimately prove to be its most compelling force. The performances of Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti and Liam Neeson in particular are simply a delight to watch, in part because it is a refreshing foray of familiar Hollywood faces into a rarer dramatic form. But Trumbo’s sharp sense of humor and gifted writing provide the meat for the medium. The remaining narratorial elements of the film pale in comparison, as no truer portrait of Trumbo can be constructed than that which emerges from the man’s own words.

These letters prove that Trumbo’s sense of absolute conviction pervaded all aspects of his life, not just his professional/political agenda. He was a devoted family man and friend, and he fought for justice in varying civil and domestic capacities – going so far as to demand fairness from the “tyrannical” telephone company through an amusing series of sarcastic complaint letters. Unfortunately, Askin’s film turns Trumbo’s potentially rich personal story into yet another history lesson about The Red Scare.

Certainly, Trumbo’s life and tale cannot be divorced from this era in history and the event that so affected the remainder of his personal and professional life. But it’s safe to say that the majority of viewers who will go to see a film about a member of the Hollywood Ten are already going to be quite familiar with the circumstances of HUAC. Yet Askin details the chronology of the hearings and offers substantial background on McCarthyism unnecessary to anyone who has ever taken an American history course – and surely anyone who wishes to dig deeper into the history of the Ten.

This tendency to over-explain the context of what was arguably the defining event in Trumbo’s life causes the rest of the film – what should be the story about Trumbo’s irreverent and inimitable character, the story of a capable life disrupted by social events, the story of maintaining strength and personal integrity in the face of absolute adversity – feel disjointed and wrongly insignificant.  Technically, the story suffers further from poor edit pacing in addition to abrupt and disorienting transitions from one topic to another.

An early sequence of interviews captures the essential conundrum of this documentary: one interviewee claims that Dalton Trumbo’s story is the story of “what it means to stay true to ideals” just before another describes Trumbo as “the story of the Blacklist and what it did to people.”  Neither summation really describes what the life of Dalton Trumbo represents for the rest of us; though the former probably gets a bit closer than the latter, there is irony in the equivocation about the story of a man who seemed so consistently sure of what he meant to say. For that man – well, we have his letters.

© 2008 Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.

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