Genre: Documentary
Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.
Release Date: June 27th, 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sex-related commentary.
Director: Peter Askin
Actors: Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Danny Glover, Nathan Lane
"This documentary is unashamedly in favor of free speech, or more accurately, the free speech writers like Dalton Trumbo were denied back in 1947."
“When you who are in your forties or younger look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.”

--Dalton Trumbo, when accepting the Screen Writers Guild Laurel Award in 1970

It’s difficult to imagine no villains or devils when it comes to the Red Scare, but then again, I’m saying this as someone who never lived through the 1940s and ‘50s. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was very much alive during that period of time, found himself blacklisted in 1947 after the House Un-American Activities Committee held him in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer that one question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Even after losing his reputation as a successful Hollywood writer, he still regarded his persecutors as victims, not as enemies. The deeply thought-provoking documentary “Trumbo” seems to do the same thing, which is an interesting if unconventional approach; no one from the HUAC is explicitly attacked in this film, not even Joseph McCarthy.

The only thing that’s attacked is ignorance itself, the belief that the First Amendment applies only if everyone shares your political beliefs. This documentary is unashamedly in favor of free speech, or more accurately, the free speech writers like Dalton Trumbo were denied back in 1947. He, unfortunately, was not the only one to be blacklisted; screenwriters Lester Cole, Ring Lardner, Jr., Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson, Herbert J. Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, and Adrian Scott were all found guilty of having ties to the Communist Party. These ten men, infamously known as the Hollywood Ten, couldn’t escape the paranoia many felt towards the movie industry, particularly its writers. Many were forced to leave Hollywood altogether. Trumbo, however, relied on fronts and pseudonyms to get his screenplays filmed. This created an interesting situation in 1957, when his screenplay for the film “The Brave One” won an Academy Award; the credited front Robert Rich was not there to accept it. No one was.

Trumbo--who wrote dozens of movie scripts in his turbulent career before dying in 1976--is appropriately revealed through his writing, namely letters written over the years to his family, his friends, and in some cases, his enemies. They were collected by Trumbo’s son, Christopher, and initially turned into a stage play. This film adaptation includes letter excerpts read by David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, Josh Lucas, Paul Giamatti, Brian Dennehy, Donald Sutherland, and Nathan Lane. As they read, we’re easily hypnotized by the sheer eloquence of Trumbo’s language; bland biographical facts are disregarded in favor of witty political and social commentaries, all of which threaten to buckle under the weight of his words. One such letter, read by Nathan Lane, was given to Trumbo’s son on his tenth birthday, and it describes masturbation with more poetic zeal than the act probably deserves. A funny letter to be sure, but one wonders how his being so pretentious was more tolerable than being so political.

But it’s easy for me to say that. Goodness knows I’ve never been put on trial for my political beliefs, suspected or otherwise. And I’ve certainly never named names to Congress, which is more than I can say for Hollywood big shots like Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, and (I’m sorry to say) Walt Disney. Trumbo paid a price for being a man of principle, for believing that friends should never, ever turn each other in. You know this is true watching “Spartacus,” written by Trumbo in 1960 and featuring that climactic moment when Crassus (Laurence Olivier) offers the defeated army freedom in exchange for Spartacus (Kirk Douglas). Rather than identify him, each man rises and defiantly shouts, “I’m Spartacus!”

What the audience basically learns is that Trumbo’s political beliefs were his own and, quite frankly, no one else’s business. This is interesting when you consider the very nature of this documentary. The political commentary in “Trumbo” is blindsiding, although it’s not necessarily preachy. That may sound like a paradox, but keep in mind that we’re not being told what to believe--we’re only being told about one man and what he personally believed. What we think makes absolutely no difference. To those who have never even heard of Dalton Trumbo, the documentary “Trumbo” may be one of the most stimulating introductions you will ever have. You may be fascinated. You may be moved. You may be humored. You may be angered. Whatever the case, you certainly won’t be bored.

This applies even to the simplest bits of trivia: he was the author of the anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun;” he wrote the screenplays for “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “A Guy Named Joe”; he eventually received his Oscar for “The Brave One” and dedicated it to his daughter, Mitzi. However, the point of “Trumbo” is not to be a biography--the point is to show how a life can be damaged or even destroyed by the belief that personal politics should be made public. My initial impression was that this film was made for thinkers, but considering it documents a man who was persecuted for thinking, I quickly realized how wrong that was. No, this film was made for everyone, and that’s why I feel everyone should see it. Even if you sympathize with the anti-Communist movement, you should still see it. You may find that simple humanity is a lot more compelling that the written or spoken word.

- Chris Pandolfi

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