I somehow managed to miss Peter Askin’s documentary, Trumbo, when it played at The Toronto International Film Festival and then again at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Having not heard strong buzz at either venue, I kept putting it off and was hence pleasantly surprised at just how engaging and absorbing a film it really is.Dalton Trumbo was a leading and respected Hollywood screenwriter when he was called before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. He was blacklisted from working and even jailed for contempt of Congress.
One strength of the film is that it relies heavily on the words of a wordsmith. Various contemporary actors read from Trumbo’s letters, and they are as dramatic as the clips from films that the Oscar winner penned. In fact, as well as being a penetrating and educational historical documentary, the film is also an interesting and effective bit of biographical film criticism. Trumbo’s biographical narrative provides a subtext for his film clips, showing how themes of loyalty, integrity, and honesty work their way into Roman Holiday, The Brave One, Exodus, and Spartacus, rendering (if possible) these classics even more poignant for our knowledge of how they must have been borne of hard experience.
I found the film passionate and sympathetic, more idealistic than politicized. Askin can’t quite resist throwing in a shot of conservative hero Ronald Reagan testifying before the committee, but he mostly refrains from framing the story as a conflict between parties or ideologies, opting instead to use a more archetypal template. It’s really a story about refusing to conform and holding to your convictions come what may.
In some ways my response to the film reminded me a bit of my response to Barbara Kopple’s Shut Up and Sing! in that there were even some early moments of exasperation at what may come off to some as exaggeration on the part of the persecuted. (Natalie Means invokes the metaphor of crucifixion in one of her lyrics; Trumbo compares the treatment of the Hollywood 10 to that of those sent to concentration camps.) Ultimately, though, both films are about artists with more self-awareness than those who are persecuting them and one tends to forgive the surprisingly rare bits of hyperbole as one becomes aware of just how much of the real persecution is whitewashed in the media and the history books that are so often accused of having some liberal bias.
The latter point is especially true given the fact that most under the age of fifty know the blacklist stories only perfunctorily. I was born in the mid-60s, and until I saw the film, I didn’t realize that any of the non-cooperative witnesses were actually jailed. One of the most poignant letters in the film, read by David Straithern, details harassment and abuse that Trumbo’s daughter suffered in elementary school because of her father’s reputation. Yes, there is a political message here that is, I think, meant to be applied to the current day, one about the dangers of hysteria, the methodology of creating a culture of fear, and the larger threats to our liberties from those who would demand concessions to circumstances than from those who would try to destroy them from without. But connections to contemporary life are wisely left implicit rather than explicit, keeping the focus on the personal costs and presenting Trumbo as more of a pro-libertarian than the product of a party system.
One false note was a mostly humorous letter (read by Nathan Lane) in which Trumbo extols the virtues of masturbation to his then teenaged son. The letter itself is a virtuoso piece of writing, playful and, in its way, revealing. Tonally, it jars, though, as the arc of the story has already led us into deep waters by the middle of the film, and the whole subject comes off as a trivial interruption rather than a bit of comic relief.
One other real virtue of the film is that in addition to reveling in Trumbo’s words, it provides us an opportunity to see several great actors at the peak of their own craft practice the lost art of monologue. Straithern is a stand out, and when an aging Donald Sutherland reads a reflective letter from an aging Trumbo, it is doubly poignant.
Perhaps the most effective and amazing thing about the film is that Trumbo is not presented as saint or even as a giant. To the extent that he is venerated as larger than life it is for his words even more than his deeds. There is an element of mystery that surrounds his immutable inability to yield; much like a Romantic novel, the film circles around its subject, adding layers of encounters but unable to ever plum the depths because there is no single answer as to why he was able to stand up to pressures that buckled most others around him. Perhaps the same gift that allowed him to use words so gloriously made him equally enthralled by them as they are expressed in our founding documents.