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Trumbo (2008) - Movie Review

Dalton Trumbo - Civil Rights Hero

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


Dalton Trumbo's career as one of Hollywood's leading screenwriters crashed when he refused to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisted and became one of the Hollywood 10, all of whom were famously persecuted for standing up for their First Amendment rights. This documentary profiles Trumbo and chronicles his life and times. Replete with fascinating archival footage, revealing interviews and exquisitely appropriate interpretations of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's letters from prison and exile, "Trumbo" is a brilliant, Oscar-worthy, must-see documentary.

Screenwriter turned Civil Rights Hero

During the 1940s, the exceptionally eloquent Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood's top screenwriters, with acclaimed films such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Kitty Foyle to his credit. In 1947, he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he cited his First Amendment rights as grounds for refusing to state whether or not he'd been a member of the Communist Party. He was put on trial, convicted and sent to jail--for upholding and abiding by the Constitution.

Trumbo was one of the Hollywood 10, a group of influential and highly acclaimed screenwriters, producers and directors who stood by their First Amendment rights and, as punishment, were prosecuted, persecuted and blacklisted so that they couldn't get work and support their families.

Lest We Forget

Trumbo is a dramatic documentary in which director Peter Askins uses a cast of superb actors--Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn and Donald Sutherland--to read excerpts of the numerous letters Trumbo wrote to family and friens while he was in prison or in exile. Compiled and edited by Christopher Trumbo, Dalton's son, the letters express Dalton's anguish, anger and strength, and how he used his impressive intellect, caustic powers of criticism and rapier wit to skewer the government agency that sought to protect our nation's constitutionally guaranteed freedoms by depriving its citizens of them.

Additionally, the documentary uses archival footage from HUAC hearings, newsreels and other sources to establish the political tone and social ambience of the late 1940s and early 50s, when America was in the throes of Cold War paranoia. The Soviet Union and Communism were deemed threats to the American way of life--to our freedoms--and HUAC, helmed by Senator Eugene McCarthy, was conducting a sort of witch hunt to purge America of citizens who were pro-Soviet and/or Communist Party members. Hollywood, considered by HUAC to be influential and socially and politically liberal, was put under investigation, with HUAC targeting talented individuals whose work expressed high levels of social consciousness and progressive political views.

Not The Only Time

This less than laudable era in American history has parallels in other time periods when mass social and political hysteria have replaced reason--including our own. And, it is represented in a number of narrative films, ranging from 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which Indy is sacked from his job as professor because he's suspected of aiding Russian spies, to Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1996), which focuses on the Salem Witchcraft Trials as a reference point for the discussion of the HUAC hearings and their impact. Of course, convicted witches lost their lives and HUAC victims only lost their livelihoods. But, as Trumbo shows us, being blacklisted and ostracized take quite a toll on a man and his family, and on society in general.

The social and political paranoia that was pervasive in colonial Salem and the Cold War era has surfaced again in post-9/11 America, and the impulse to curtail First Amendment rights is again in play. Trumbo appears at just the right time to remind us of the dangers inherent in curtailing First Amendment rights. The film presents Dalton Trumbo as more than a victim of his times. His eloquence and wisdom, generosity, integrity, righteousness and tenacity postilion him as a truly heroic citizen.

Hollywood Makes Nice

Technically, the blacklist was imposed by Hollywood studios, not the government. Studios agreed to shun those who were 'unfriendly' witnesses at HUAC hearings. In addition to the Hollywood 10, hundreds of men and women couldn't get work in the movie industry. Many screenwriters, including Trumbo, went underground, using fake names or those of friends on original scripts or for-hire rewrites. It's thought that Trumbo penned about thirty scripts during the time he was blacklisted, and one of them--The Brave One, which Trumbo had written using the name Robert Rich--won the Oscar for best original story in 1956. Trumbo took this as an opportunity to break the blacklist.

In 1960, Hollywood recognized Trumbo as the writer of Exodus and Spartacus. In the documentary, Askins includes the inspiring scene from Spartacus, in which the slaves stand, one by one, and proclaim themselves to be Spartacus in order to protect their leader from further suffering at the hands of the Romans. That scene resonates with Trumbo's personal courage and tenacity. It's a very moving moment, one among many.

Archival footage of the hearings is fascinating, as are comments made about Trumbo and his work in interviews with his children, Christopher and Mitzi, as well as with Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Navasky and others. The interpretations of Trumbo's letters are superb. Actors, shot in extreme closeups which reveal every emotional nuance, read excerpts that seem ideally suited to them, regardless of their personal political opinions.

Trumbo is a brilliant film. Make sure you see it.

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