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Bringing Trumbo's principles to life

A documentary shows the blacklisted writer paid a stiff price for standing by his beliefs.

June 27, 2008|Kenneth Turan | Times Film Critic
  • AT WAR WITH THE SYSTEM: Dalton Trumbo wrote under as many as 13 assumed names
AT WAR WITH THE SYSTEM: Dalton Trumbo wrote under as many as 13 assumed names (Mitzi Trumbo / Mitzi Trumbo )

"Trumbo" is an unconventional film about an unconventional man. Part documentary, part expertly staged readings, it focuses on the unquiet life and unforgettable words of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, someone who, as his son puts it, never had to go looking for trouble because it always came to him.

Christopher Trumbo wrote a successful play constructed out of his father's writings, a play that is the basis for this Peter Askin film about how one of the most successful studio writers of his day became even more famous for being blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten and then for being the man who broke that list's invidious power.

The tone of "Trumbo" is set by the eulogy Ring Lardner Jr., a fellow member of the Ten, delivered when Trumbo died in 1976. "A person whose virtues are so manifest to all he is revered and loved by everyone he comes in contact with," Lardner intoned. "Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not."

Rather, as the film reveals, Trumbo was a contrarian who refused to lose an argument. Everyone agrees that he could be difficult, but he also believed passionately in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And when the House Committee on Un-American Activities began to investigate Trumbo's connections to the Communist Party, his life showed what the fearsome cost of standing up for your principles can be.

The heart of "Trumbo" is the man's letters, excerpts of which are read by actors of the caliber of Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Liam Neeson and David Strathairn. They were attracted by more than Trumbo's politics: his splendid language is an alive thing, so casually eloquent it is startling.

Trumbo could be funny, as when he called Albert Ellis, the author of "Sex Without Guilt," "the greatest humanitarian since Mahatma Gandhi." He could be an irascible pain in the neck, as when he excoriates his local phone company for its service. But being dull, or compromising what he believed, was never an option.

The documentary part of "Trumbo" has excerpts from several interviews with him as well as his children and people who knew him. Hear how Trumbo survived by writing under as many as 13 assumed names; how the Oscar he won for one of those scripts, "The Brave One," went unclaimed; and how Otto Preminger (with "Exodus") and Kirk Douglas (with "Spartacus") broke the blacklist by putting his name on their movies.

Trumbo was at his best when speaking about the terrible time he lived through. "The blacklist was a time of evil," he said when accepting the Writers Guild Laurel Award, "and no one on either side who survived was untouched."



"Trumbo." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sex-related commentary. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In limited release.

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