[Trumbo opens today at Manhattan's Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Sunshine Cinema. Click theater names for screening info.]
Trumbo, Peter Askin's poignant, mind-stirring documentary about the defiantly prolific screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted during the McCarthy era, based on a play written by his son Christopher (from letters Trumbo wrote during that tumultuous period) is essential viewing for all film critics—any professional writer really—recently affected by the economic recession. To call Trumbo tenacious, awe-inspiring, a courageous hero doesn't do the man justice. How many writers working today would accept poverty and prison, shame and exile to stand by their convictions—and do it for ten long years? How many writers in 2008 would have prefaced that with nearly another decade stoically working as a night bread wrapper for an L.A. bakery while studying at USC, repossessing motorcycles, reviewing films for a trade magazine—and churning out six novels and eighty-eight short stories (all of which would be rejected for publication)? To all those laid off writers I say, if you can't write without a paycheck being involved then you've no business considering yourself in the same profession as Mr. Trumbo (thus you probably didn't deserve that paycheck in the first place. Ah, isn't karma sweet?)
Yes, karma eventually arrived to vindicate Trumbo when he became the first writer to break the Blacklist courtesy of Kirk Douglas (who fought for his credit on Spartacus) and Otto Preminger (who did the same on Exodus). Askin uses swiftly edited film clips, interviews (with both McCarthy era scholars and those who knew Trumbo like Douglas and Dustin Hoffman) and archival material, including interviews with the witty and crotchety screenwriter himself, but the beating heart of the film is the many A-list actors who read Trumbo's letters to friends and family, his words so alive and precise even today that not much is needed in the way of interpretation. The plainly dressed thespians merely channel the magic on the page. Askin changes camera angles here and there, but the scenes mainly consist of a giant like Brian Dennehy, perhaps a glass of water and a table, and the letter being read. Theatrical, yes; cinematic, no. In fact, Askin who was in the midst of directing the London stage version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch when he was approached to do Trumbo seems more suited to directing for the stage. And every single actor who gives voice to Trumbo's words (save for Josh Lucas—Josh Lucas?) has more than solid theater training and cred. In addition to Dennehy, there's fellow Tony Award winners Joan Allen and Nathan Lane, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland and Michael Douglas (who every once in awhile has to take on some moving parts like this and the one in Wonder Boys to remind us he's every bit the hard-working talent his father once was).
Ironically, these scenes of mesmerizing theatrical performance also end up the Achilles heel of Askin's film. As one blessed to have seen Dennehy in his Tony Award winning turns in Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night (with Vanessa Redgrave!), as well as his critically underappreciated performance opposite Christopher Plummer in Inherit The Wind"(he got robbed!), I can vouch for the electric current that pulses throughout the theater whenever Dennehy is onstage. He's a one-man earthquake, a shamanistic actor in the truest sense. So it's a bit frustrating that talent like his and the rest of the cast (Joan Allen is even moved to startling tears while reading a letter, no acting tricks required) is confined to the screen. I wholeheartedly would have preferred to see Trumbo as a live theater piece, all the interviews, archival footage and film clips confined to video monitors in the background. This material needs that visceral quality only human flesh can provide to do its present-day themes justice (even the most powerful cinema will never eclipse, but must always coexist, with live performance). We need to overwhelmingly feel what Trumbo and other blacklisted artists went through, not just hear about it through interviews and see it in archival footage. The fact that Trumbo began life as a play only makes me long for that original form. I've seen Ralph Fiennes do Hamlet onstage—and I can say with utmost certainty that a film's lens would be lucky to capture one-tenth of his animal passion. Some artists are just too big to be adequately contained within a frame. And Trumbo was a man who fit this definition to a T.
Wishful thinking aside, within cinema's limits Trumbo is still incredibly moving. Some images, like the pan across the Hollywood Ten panel at the HUAC hearings, their respective Oscar nominations and awards superimposed beneath the determined faces (massive fish for McCarthy), is heartbreaking. Like with the Holocaust, archival footage of the HUAC hearings is always intriguing (for proof see the epic Point of Order) for it poses the mind-boggling question, "How the fuck could we have allowed this to happen?" And Askin's film does an admirable job in providing context for the McCarthy atrocity, reminding us that our cool, WWII Russian Commie allies became our Cold War enemy virtually overnight ("Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?" was the 40s political equivalent of "Have you ever tried marijuana?"). "Get ready to become nobody," is how Trumbo puts it in an interview in his later years, describing the actions a writer took after being subpoenaed—sell your house, get in as much work as possible, save every penny before the news becomes public. One can't help but think of the Jewish persecutions in Europe, and indeed Trumbo is seen at the hearings declaring, "This is the beginning of a Jewish concentration camp—for writers," an uncomfortable truth that could have been probed more deeply by Askin.
Aside from a few clips of Nazi-sympathizing Walt Disney himself vowing to rid Fantasyland of the Reds, not much is uttered about the fact that right on the heels of the Holocaust an overwhelmingly anti-Semitic Congress was holding hearings that in effect ordered mostly Jewish Hollywood moguls to cleanse themselves of First Amendment clinging artists (it's important to remember that on the stand Trumbo and his fellow railroaded colleagues took the First—not the Fifth—in a brilliant act of legal defiance), silencing art through spectacle in much the same way Hitler staged exhibitions of "Degenerate Art." In light of the situation, I don't think it's too hysterical to call these cowardly moguls, bowing to the almighty dollar, Jewish capos for the ruling fascist government, building "concentration camps for writers" by selling them out. After all, one of the most insidious, disturbing aspects of the Blacklist, a nightmarish blackmail—"Faustian" as Trumbo describes it—is that it was created by the capos in order to save their own skins. Really, how far is it from "denounce your religion, convert to Christianity and you will be spared" to "name names and you'll be able to feed your family"? Did they not see the parallel or did they not want to see it?
Not that the Blacklist succeeded in stifling artistry, in being any less farcical than the Hayes Code. Wherever artists are being silenced they will always find a way to be heard. Trumbo and his self-exiled cohorts (Mexico—the place to roam when you've got nothing left to lose!) merely created their own underground railroad of fronts and pseudonyms, a clandestine subversion of the system spawned from the same constraining seed that created the passionate filmmaking during the Hayes years. Trumbo wrote some of his best work under aliases (he had thirteen of them!), Roman Holiday and The Brave One to name just two. (In an interview Trumbo coyly explains why he refuses to confirm or deny that he wrote any particular script—so he can take a little credit for every great film without having to be responsible for the "scamps.") To this list I would add his letters, which were oftentimes his only means of communication and connection, and a catharsis as well. Hollywood's golden age, when the studios served as patrons to artists, was glorious—until those artists awoke to the hard cold truth of being owned, traded and kicked into the street on a whim. In his letters, Trumbo was able to recapture the lost innocence of playing with words, a pure enjoyment not dependent on payment (highlighted in Lane's reading of a winking, hilarious essay on masturbation accompanied by a teasing orchestral score).
"Freedom of speech is a luxury," Trumbo states in an interview, when faced with going hungry. In his letters he declares that "choice is the devil," the free will to decide whether to inform or to starve. One can't help but think that Trumbo made the right decision glimpsing at the bounty of happy family photos taken in the wake of the Blacklist, including Ring Lardner Jr.'s daughter's album, which contains a B&W still of the ex-pats wrestling like kids. Old home movies of the families and friends who banded together are both touching and painful. They may have lost everything material, but they evidently kept their love for one another—and their pride. (One talking head recalls visiting the blacklisted writer Adrian Scott in a house with no furniture, only a typewriter on a crate and a photo of FDR gracing the wall. Scott was willing to sacrifice everything, save for his dignity and his voice.)
And yet—the fallout in those tight-knit families, the "psychic injuries" inflicted upon Trumbo's teenage daughter Mitzi, mocked at school until she refused to go anymore, her father forced to live undercover using pseudonyms like a criminal on the run—gives pause. What does it feel like to watch the Academy Awards, to see Robert Rich's trophy for The Brave One sit unclaimed, then have to tell your children, "No, of course we can't go get it." That statue now resides with Mitzi, though of it Trumbo wrote at the time, recalling how many suicides the Blacklist had spawned, "It is covered in the blood of my dead friends." I wonder if Elia Kazan ever wrote a heart-pounding letter like the one penned to the widow of Ray Murphy, one of Trumbo's fronts who died suddenly at the age of 29, expressing his indebted gratitude to her husband (this is the letter that brought tears to Joan Allen's eyes), detailing exactly why and how this man touched his life. In Trumbo's words to the grieving wife one can trace the origin of "I am Spartacus!" Trumbo's fronts and Spartacus' comrades were one and the same.
Through passion and outrage Trumbo retained his freedom, the payoff coming not in any onetime statuette, but in the simple ability to get up each and every morning and proudly face himself in the mirror. After all, being able to live with one's self is something no amount of money can buy. And in this way Trumbo proves just as much an indictment of the cowards who informed without uttering one bad thing about them—as dignified as Trumbo himself. Thirty-two years after Dalton Trumbo's death his remarkable words about life being one long fight, not a series of battles (read by Sutherland over the closing credits), ring truer than ever. Instant gratification and the myopic nature of consumer culture will always serve to blind us to the bigger picture, to mask that profound piece of advice Trumbo gave to a young Donald Sutherland. "Don't forget to be happy."
Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master's Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.