(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: The story of Dalton Trumbo's career is told, based on the play of the same name by Dalton's son, Christopher Trumbo. The story is illuminated by Trumbo's writings, particularly his correspondence dramatically read by major actors of the film industry. Actors recreate the moods of this always tremendously well-spoken man. This may be the last film to feature Trumbo's writing and it has some of his most powerful prose. It is may be the best film that has ever been made about the Hollywood blacklist and the Hollywood Ten. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

The darkest chapter of the American entertainment industry was the years of the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy era. People accused of disloyalty to the government--usually for actions that were completely within their Constitutional rights-- could not confront their accusers, but would suddenly find that nobody would hire them. Careers were destroyed by innuendo.

Ten Hollywood screenwriters refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation into whether as anonymously accused, there were Communist influences in the film industry. In most cases this lack of cooperation was a refusal to betray their friends and give names of people who could be accused of being Communists. Unchecked the accusations would have spread in a chain reaction. If each person accused gave the names of two others the entire film industry could have been consumed. Ten screenwriters refused to cooperate. These were the Hollywood Ten.

One screenwriter among the ten was Dalton Trumbo. Before the years of the blacklist he was a successful screenwriter with an eloquent and powerful command of the English language. Like the others of the Ten, he was sentenced to a year in prison on the charge of contempt of Congress. When he was released he had become an un-person as far as his Hollywood career was concerned. Studios could not hire him for fear of being accused themselves of hiring Communists. Trumbo could submit only very few scripts he had written and then only under a pseudonym or by the use of a front man whom Trumbo would allow to claim credit for Trumbo's work. In 1956 a Trumbo script--submitted under the fictitious name Robert Rich--was given an Academy Award that could not be claimed. Then in 1960 two major films were released, SPARTACUS and EXODUS, each written by Dalton Trumbo. The producers and directors of these films risked the wrath of the American public and gave Trumbo screen credit for his own work. It was an extremely risky action. The decision to use Trumbo's name was made by Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger respectively of these two films. When there was little fuss from the public. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper was a notable exception calling SPARTACUS "A story sold to Universal from a book written by a Commie [Howard Fast], and the screen script was written by a Commie [Dalton Trumbo], so don't go see it." When the public did go see it it was generally acknowledged that the blacklist was dead. Trumbo, Preminger, and especially Douglas had tested the waters and demonstrated that the government hunt for supposed Communist influences had lost the support of the American people.

The story of Trumbo is important and moving enough. But nine major actors give dramatic readings to his correspondence: Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, and Donald Sutherland. In addition Kirk Douglas also talks about his relationship with Trumbo and the history of the period. In addition there are filmed interviews with Trumbo to fill in gaps and interviews with family and friends still living.

The story covered by the film goes from Trumbo's career in the 1930s to his final acceptance back to public approval in 1960 (with a bit of a postscript in the 1970s). In the 1930s the Communist Party seemed to be the only American party that had a direct policy of opposing Fascism and confronting dictators. During World War II, the Soviets were at least nominally America's allies. But when the war was over the fear and hatred of the Soviets turned into a vicious anti-Communist witch-hunt. Some actors, afraid for their positions, willingly cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The first who did not cooperate were called the Unfriendly Ten. Later they were re-dubbed the Hollywood Ten. The film follows Trumbo through his time in prison and then to his self-exile to Mexico to find work that he could not find the United States. The actors dramatize his many moods reflected in his correspondence including Paul Giamatti's very funny reading of a letter from Dalton to son Christopher on the subject of masturbation, a letter that probably ranks with Mark Twain's 1601. The film follows Trumbo through times when he was taking any work he could get and when he returned by screenwriting, the career he had promised himself he would never enter again. He used fronts and pseudonyms to sell his scripts while hiding his name. All of this is described with great eloquence in his correspondence. It is also illustrated with scenes that he wrote for the movies, which take on new meaning in the context of Trumbo's life.

There is a certain continuity across the many actors who read his words. They can be funny or sad or serious and heavy, but it is the same voice behind them and the same carefully and powerfully wrought prose. TRUMBO is among other things a lesson in how two say volumes with an economy of words. As a sort of grand finale the actors all share a reading with overlapping segments so each can get a part of this one reading. As admirable as TRUMBO is, and as powerful in his convictions, Dalton Trumbo is not the hero of this story. Dalton Trumbo is a man whose strong character was more important to himself than his sense of self-preservation. By being a person of character he knowingly (or mostly knowingly) allowed himself to be the victim of dangerous political forces. The real hero of this film is Kirk Douglas. He is present and speaking through stroke-slurred speech, but he obviously wanted to participate. Another hero is Otto Preminger who also credited Trumbo's work. These two men risked losing heir careers to make a stand against the Hollywood blacklist. TRUMBO is essentially the story of a rescue against high odds. And more than just Trumbo's career was rescued. Douglas and Preminger are the rescuers. This film concentrates on why that rescue was necessary, why it had to be done, and why all Americans are the beneficiaries of the rescue of one articulate contrarian with a bushy moustache. I rate TRUMBO a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

Kirk Douglas gives a good account of his part in the events in his autobiography THE RAGMAN'S SON. The film TRUMBO gets its New York City release on June 27.

Film Credits:

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper