Movie Review: Trumbo

Step back to the good old days when anybody could be brought before Congress and interrogated about their beliefs, and meet one of the most famous of those who refused to answer

A documentary about the most outspoken, and possibly the most talented, of the fabled “Hollywood Ten” screenwriters chronicles one of the most disgraceful periods in the history of film making in the USA.  This is the period of the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunt during which the US film industry was blackmailed into coercing many of its best actors, screenwriters and others into entering various false testimonies before a congressional hearing, or face expulsion from the industry.

At least ten writers and actors refused to cooperate and were blacklisted by the co-opted Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) which supported the black list.  This meant that they could not be a part of any films made at the time, lest others involved in the film be blacklisted themselves and/or simply face the unofficial damnation of funding elimination or firing from their jobs.

(James) Dalton Trumbo was reported to be the top paid screenwriter in the industry at the time of the anti-communist hysteria.  He was born in 1905 in Colorado and was imbued with a certain maverick mindset that made capitulation to the corrupt establishment impossible to accept.  His life prior to screenwriting had consisted of a dizzying array of personal experiences that included everything from hosing off corpses to repossessing motorcycles to bootlegging (he quit because it was too dangerous) to working in a bakery. 

From the 1930s Trumbo published magazine articles, short stories and, finally, movie scripts.  His fame rose steadily until he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and imprisoned for a year for refusing to cooperate with what is now accepted as being a kangaroo court.  After being released in 1950, he joined the ranks of the blacklisted but continued to write some thirty screenplays under pseudonyms and using friends as false fronts.

This was a technique used by many blacklisted writers and probably saved many of them from the self-destruction that plagued black-listed actors.  At least the writers could work and hope for a better day.  In this period of time he made up the pseudonym of Robert Rich and won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for “The Brave One.”  The award was accepted by Jesse Lasky Jr. of the Screen Writers Guild, and no Robert Rich ever turned up.  AMPAS acknowledged the Oscar on May 2, 1975, shortly before Trumbo’s death, but the official screen credit was not changed until many years later.

Trumbo used his friend Ian McLellan Hunter as a front for his “Roman Holiday” which also won an Oscar in 1953.  Trumbo was not acknowledged as the real writer until 1993. 

The spell was only broken when Trumbo was hired by producer-director Otto Preminger in 1959 to write the screenplay for “Exodus”(1960) and was hired by executive producer and lead actor Kirk Douglas a few months later to adapt “Spartacus.” Both Douglas and Preminger made public announcements of Trumbo’s hiring and, essentially, broke the blacklist.

Dalton Trumbo died in 1976 of lung cancer caused, possibly, by his lifetime six pack a day smoking habit (either that or the dust he inhaled writing from his bath tub in Mexico during his self-exile after his release from prison).

This film is adapted from the off-Broadway play by Christopher Trumbo, Dalton’s son.  It consists of interviews, quotes and reading from the play by such cinematic luminaries as Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Kirk and Michael Douglas, Nathan Lane and Donald Sutherland.  This not to mention priceless footage of Dalton himself in action.

Although a predictable film that does little to assuage the damage caused by the self-serving scourge of McCarthy in the post WWII 1940s “Trumbo” is a fitting testimonial to a very talented man who truly did it his way.  At any cost.

Directed by: Peter Askin
Written by: Christopher Trumbo (play and screenplay)

Release: June 27, 2008
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for a sex-related commentary
Runtime: 96 minutes
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: B&W / Color