Doc of the Day: Trumbo Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Trumbo

Posted in Days of Docs by - October 23, 2012
Doc of the Day: Trumbo

The story of a writer who, much like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, refused to back down.

Dir. Peter Askin, 2007, 95 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant

Dalton Trumbo was one of those guys who was so good at what he did that he makes you feel inadequate at the same craft, long after his death. Trumbo, a chronicle of his life and work, utilizes numerous formerly private letters written by the man, and it’s ridiculous how exquisite they are. Well-known as a Hollywood screenwriter, Trumbo seems to have been simply unable to “turn it off.” No matter what he wrote, he brought everything he had.

Of course, if he wasn’t like that, he probably would have wilted away to nothing after he was blacklisted by the system in the 1950’s. Trumbo was one of the “Hollywood Ten,” prominent writers, directors, and producers who were unable to find work after they collectively refused to appear before Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC witch hunt. When asked, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?,” Trumbo took a glance at the Constitution and responded that it was none of their damned business. Which landed him in prison for almost a year for contempt of court, and almost a decade without work.

Or rather, without credited work. Like I said, Trumbo couldn’t turn it off. He continued to write movies, even winning two Oscars, for Roman Holiday and The Brave One. Of course, the first award went to a writer who acted as a front for Trumbo, while the second, which was credited to a fictional person, was the only unclaimed Oscar in the Academy’s history for a time. Some of the doc’s best emotional content comes from Trumbo’s daughter recalling how proud she was, only for her to learn that there was no way for her father to accept the accolades. And this came after she was ostracized at school for having a “treasonous” parent. Trumbo is largely about what happens to those ground under the thumb of censorship. When your life is your voice, having it stifled is death.

Through sound bites from various period interviews with Trumbo, recollections of those who knew him, and dramatic readings of his letters, we get a portrait of the artist as a cantankerous rabble-rouser. The best parts are the readings; David Strathairn, Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, Michael Douglas, Donald Sutherland, and more all jump on Trumbo’s amazing prose and channel it through their own sensibilities. They’re clearly relishing the opportunity to sink their teeth into this stuff.

Trumbo is a delight, inspirational without being pandering (which Trumbo would have abhorred), while also being a great history lesson on the Hollywood blacklist. Made with the help of Trumbo’s son Christopher (it’s partially adapted from his own stage play, in fact), it manages to be intimate without getting sentimental or starry-eyed about its subject. It’s the best you can ask of a biographical doc.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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