Sunday, August 3, 2008

Review of Trumbo

This review originally appeared in Primetime A&E and is reprinted with the magazine's permission (thanks, Trina).

In case you haven't listened to the news for the last decade or so, not a lot of people like our president and his policies, a hatred that has spread to film. Honestly, can you remember a decade when there were more politically critical movies of all genres (satires, dramas, documentaries) being released?

They've almost become as prevalent as summer sequels, and about as predictable. I'm all for movies inspiring people to constructive action, but that tactic only goes so far…Especially if no one is watching them. Aside from 2004's Fahrenheit 9/11, I’m hard pressed to remember any movie that effectively urged the general public to rage against the machine. And with George W. Bush's re-election in 2004, director Michael Moore has to consider that movie a failure.

Peter Askin, director of the outstanding new documentary Trumbo, has gotten into the act. In a "director's statement," he trumpets the letter-writing of his subject, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), as "prophetic." Askin elaborates: "His fight against the perversion of American ideals that held sway at the height of the Cold War has new immediacy, and the cost to personal freedoms feels as threatening as anything George Orwell could have predicted."

OK, so what else is new? You can draw your own government-based parallels between that bygone era and today. To me, Trumbo is more about a brilliant man cut off from his homeland, with only his words to survive. That's what makes it so good: This time the politics are personal.

A very successful writer (Johnny Got His Gun) and screenwriter (Kitty Foyle) throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Trumbo was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. The committee was investigating subversive influences in the film industry, or trying to get witnesses to admit their association with the Communist party. Trumbo said nothing. Along with nine other men, he was blacklisted by the Hollywood studios in 1950 and spent 11 months in prison for contempt of Congress.

"This is the beginning of an American concentration camp for writers," Trumbo raged to the committee at one point, an extreme comparison, but not inaccurate. He spent a couple of years in Mexico with friends, where most of the time was spent drinking. Then, the money ran out, forcing Trumbo and his family's return to the states, where he anonymously cranked out scripts at a frantic pace for reduced rates. One of his pen names, Robert Rich, won an Oscar in 1956 for The Brave One. (Claiming it was "covered with blood," Trumbo never picked up the award; it was given to him some 20 years later.) The Oscar paved the way for Trumbo to get his real name back on screen. That finally happened in 1960, thanks to Spartacus star Kirk Douglas and Exodus director Otto Preminger, who helped Trumbo get official writing credits for both films. Other blacklisted contemporaries weren't so lucky, committing suicide before their names were cleared.

The film uses archival footage of Trumbo and interviews with family, friends, and colleagues to explain the man, but the letters (read by a group of talented actors, including Liam Neeson and Paul Giamatti) allow us to see a man living in the aftermath of a great Constitutional tragedy. He thanks a friend for a loan, refuses to clear his name by apologizing for his beliefs, and worries about his future. He writes to his daughter's school, demanding that she not be tortured by her peers because of his principles. The letters also show his determination to be a good father. His son, Christopher (the movie is based on his play), receives an elaborate birthday poem from his imprisoned father that rivals anything Dr. Seuss wrote. A few years later, Christopher gets a book on masturbation from his father, along with a letter of his vivid, hilarious recollections. "The first thing I did was start laughing," Christopher remembers. "The second thing I did was get a dictionary." Even the phone company gets an earful. "Dear Burglars," one letter begins.

As the letters are read, it becomes clear that writing was more than a way for Trumbo to earn a living and to fight back. The letters, whether they were raging against the government or Ma Bell, were written with a mixture of sophisticated wordplay and staggering, unerring conviction. I got a sense watching Trumbo that the letters kept the man alive. His presence may have been unwelcome, but his words weren't going anywhere.

That's the kind of resilient nature America needs today, the movie suggests. But what's cruelly ironic is that Trumbo's words may not make it to the intended audience. We are flooded with pundits and experts on TV, radio, Internet, and print, so it's hard to get someone to rise above the din and unite people with a new perspective, let along get them to follow it. Dalton Trumbo was born way too early, if only because we need heroes for more optimistic movies in the future. Films today can only do so much.

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