Trumbo

Documentary

  • Written by Christopher Trumbo
  • Directed by Peter Askin

Trumbo walks a fine line between performance art and documentary. Like any conventional showbiz biodoc, it delivers plenty of film clips, old photos, home movies, and interview clips of people close to the subject. But it also spends much of its time on famous actors (Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, and Donald Sutherland among them), reciting Trumbo’s own words against a black backdrop.

The mix works, in large part because Dalton Trumbo was a great writer. He was MGM’s top screenwriter before he was subpoenaed by congress in 1947 and refused to answer questions about his Communist Party membership. He thus became one of the Hollywood Ten, went to prison for contempt of congress, and was blacklisted. After more than ten years writing screenplays under false names for a fraction of his former pay, he broke the blacklist and received screen credit for Exodus and Sparticus.

No excerpts from his famous screenplays are read in this documentary, which Christopher Trumbo (Dalton’s son) based on his own stage play. With the exception of one excerpt from Trumbo’s best-known novel, Johnnie Got His Gun, the actors read from Trumbo’s private letters–everything from desperate pleas for money to angry letters to the phone company to a poem for his son’s 10th birthday. Trumbo’s private correspondence proves as witty and entertaining as anything he ever wrote for Hollywood.

The conventional documentary stuff is less memorable, but iht holds its own. Concentrating on the blacklist years, it quickly and clearly tells its story of a good man living through bad times, and lets the performance art fill in the character detail. These sections tend toward hero worship; I’d be hard pressed to name one serious human flaw mentioned anyway.

But my main complaint with Trumbo is technical. It looks like it was shot for the old, pre-widescreen 4×3 aspect ratio, then carelessly cropped for widescreen. The framing often cuts off the top of people’s heads, and occasionally far more than just the top.

Dalton Trumbo lived through a time when paranoia, intentionally created by the powers that be, threatened to destroy the ideals for which America stands. Because he stood up to and defied that paranoia, Dalton Trumbo was reviled, hated, and deprived of his livelihood. His son’s movie makes you wonder if what you would do in that situation.