Trumbo, as one of ten Hollywood writers facing the witch-hunt that was McCarthyism, informs the Un-American Activities Congressional panel that, constitutionally speaking, it has no legal right to deny or probe an American citizen's political beliefs, that being the very tyranny from which the First Amendment aims to protect. The price for so informing them, of course, was a Hollywood blacklisting.
This is a surprisingly impressive and moving telling of Trumbo's story. Collated into the archival footage telling the timeline of events are nine A-list actors honoring the man by reciting repeatedly from his personal papers. These monologues make incredibly plain the extraordinarily gifted writing, personal integrity and innermost thoughts of the man as he persevered through being ostracized, blacklisted and imprisoned - and eventually schemed his own redemption.
Also interwoven are scenes from films authored by Trumbo that the viewer here learns are not just high-minded eloquent scriptwork but rather a reflection of Trumbo's personal values, beliefs and actions (eg, the refusals to betray as told in "Spartacus" & "Papillon").
An extension of 1993 stagecraft. All rights to this film were purchased by (the now defunct) Red Envelope Entertainment branch of Netflix.
RECOMMENDATION: Highly worthy intellectual viewing.
"Trumbo" are the letters and screenplays penned by famed writer Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood 10, held in contempt of Congress(Not to be confused with contempt for Congress) for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee(HUAC) and jailed for a year.(Ring Lardner Jr. said he would have hated himself in the morning if he had.) After being blacklisted for ten years as a result and struggling to find any work, Trumbo's first onscreen credit was for "Exodus," due to Otto Preminger and his enormous brass balls.(Even with his liberal credentials, Preminger was never called before HUAC because as bullies, they were deathly afraid of him. It would have been funny if he had been, though.) Unlike I had originally presumed, this was only the first of many bricks in the blacklist to be taken down.
That's not the only misconception that "Trumbo" seeks to correct, although it confuses HUAC with Senator Joe McCarthy. They were two separate entities, amongst the many red baiters out to ruin people in the 1950's. In front of the committee, the writers pled the first, not the fifth amendment, because they felt had done nothing wrong by freely associating with the Communist Party which was the only political organization active in political change at the time. The documentary seeks to illustrate Trumbo's role in these events by interviews(some with him before he died in 1976), archival footage, film clips and actors reading Trumbo's letters which is a mixed success at best. This takes the movie out of the realm of being a documentary and into a performance piece(Actually, this was adapted from a play). The best are Nathan Lane reading the only positive letter ever written from father to son on the subject of masturbation and Paul Giamatti reading a letter to the phone company. All of which provides a complete portrait of the writer as a cantankerous soul(nice people generally do not usually make good fighters). But for the best insight on the blacklist, check out "The Front."
Despite enlisting several Hollywood stars to read the letters of the man in a compelling way, this cannot be said to offer entertainment.
To be taken as a documentary, one must criticize a lack of background depth to the climate that created a politicized blacklist and an almost complete occlusion of the political philosophy expressed by those blacklisted that caused them to be vilified in the first place.
"McCarthyism" is properly used as a pejorative term to refer to the era when a Senator and his cronies sacrificed people's lives in order to aggrandize themselves optically before the public and provides a dire warning of the misuse of power in a democratic capitalist system. I think it is important for people today to pay heed to these past days and be very watchful of their "leaders" at all times, because we have seen countless examples in history of the notion that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". As an individual your entire life can be ruined by government out to scare the public into rallying to their cause, accepting the erosion of rights in the name of "safety", and pointing one out as an example to be ostracized by the community at large.
In days of Patriot Acts and other attacks on civil freedoms to stop "the terrorists", the parallels can be easily drawn.
Having said all that, it comes down to the scoring system as always, and this gets my "watch once and enjoy" 6er because of the lacks as a documentary piece, despite the vital importance of the material in general.
The way director Peter Askin presents the information is pretty cool as well. He uses Trumbo's family members for interviews and actors who had some relation to him for readings of letters he wrote. You get an interesting sense of who and how he was when things that he wrote are read by someone who 1. knew him well enough to know how it should sound and 2. can actually act!
I don't know that it was interesting enough to watch again, but definitely worth seeing once.
Very interesting and funny.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune, is a fowl excuse for a man of valid opinion.