"Trumbo": an A-list screenwriter who defied blacklisting
"Trumbo": Through a combination of vintage film clips, interviews and dramatic readings by some of today's finest actors, director Peter Askin has crafted an elegant tribute to blacklisted "Hollywood Ten" screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), based upon Christopher Trumbo's play about his father's unconventional life and career.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Trumbo," a documentary featuring readings by Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland. Directed by Peter Askin, based on the play by Christopher Trumbo. 96 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mild language. Varsity.
"Trumbo" is director Peter Askin's elegant tribute to the unconventional life and career of Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), one of the greatest of all American screenwriters and a defiant member of the "Hollywood Ten" who suffered through the anti-communist blacklist of the late 1940s and '50s. Based on the stage play by Trumbo's son, Christopher, Askin's film draws heavily on Dalton Trumbo's personal letters, dramatically recited by some of today's greatest actors.
A devoted husband, father and staunch defender of the constitution, Trumbo was Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter when, in 1947, he was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), then beginning its unconstitutional investigation of "subversive influences" within the film industry. Ultimately jailed for his refusal to cooperate with HUAC's inquisition, Trumbo continued to write under borrowed names until his Academy Award for 1957's "The Brave One" (credited to Robert Rich, a front for Trumbo) led to the eventual breaking of the blacklist and Trumbo's proper screen credits as the writer of "Exodus" and "Spartacus" in 1960.
"Trumbo" recalls this still-relevant tumult through vintage film clips and interviews with colleagues, relatives and historians including Dustin Hoffman, Victor Navasky (author of the classic blacklist history "Naming Names") and Trumbo's children Christopher and Mitzi. But it's the readings of Trumbo's letters that provide the film's biographical thrust, illuminating Trumbo's familial devotion and the psychic agony inflicted by the blacklist while chronicling memorable chapters of a life well-lived.
Trumbo's letters are a godsend for actors, and while Brian Dennehy, Liam Neeson, Michael Douglas, Joan Allen and Donald Sutherland lend appropriate gravitas to their passages, they're also acting as conduits for Trumbo's personality — often as playfully mischievous (note Nathan Lane's hilarious reading of Trumbo's ode to masturbation, or Paul Giamatti reciting a scathing letter to "burglars" at a telephone company) as it was tortured by the blacklist and its aftermath. For any parent who's feared the worst from his child's education, there will be a sting of recognition in David Strathairn's reading of Trumbo's anguished excoriation of a school principal, for allowing his daughter to be scorned by classmates under the influence of parental paranoia.
Although it glosses over a few relevant details (such as the efforts of Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas to restore Trumbo's screen credit), "Trumbo" also functions as a passionate defense of truth from a writer who embodied all of the virtues that Americans claim to value. Whether we will continue to heed the warnings inherent in Trumbo's experience is another matter altogether.
Jeff Shannon: email@example.com
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When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.