CINEMA: Un-American Activities

trumbo_1.jpgTRUMBO (2007, directed by Peter Askin, 96 minutes, U.S.)


When Elia Kazan won his honorary Oscar back in 1999 there were some who voiced surprise that Sean Penn (among others) refused to applaud for the eighty-nine year old director. If one needs to understand why someone could be holding a grudge over Hollywood’s Communist witch hunts of the 1950’s, the life of its most famous victim, Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, is a fine place to start. Peter Askin’s new documentary gives an intimate look at a how the blacklist effected one man and his family but Trumbo has more to offer than a look at that musty historical moment, it has the insightful and frequently hilarious writing scribblings of Mr. Trumbo himself.

Trumbo is a bit light on biography. It doesn’t get bogged down in trying to give a cradle to the grave summary of his life, and it even glosses over most of his work as a screenwriter (which includes films like Spartacus and the Metallica-sampled Johnny Got His Gun). What is revealed, though, is stunning; Trumbo gets to the soul of the man by reading aloud large portions of this inveterate letter writer’s wide-ranging missives. Read by a cast including David Straithairn, Paul Giamatti, Joan Allen and Liam Neeson, Trumbo’s bawdy, apologetic, incensed and always eloquent writing is more fluent in revealing the man than any half-remembered anecdotes from talking heads could ever hope to be.

Included are letters he sent to everyone imaginable; his remaining colleagues in the film biz, supportive friends who lent him money, even a letter to the phone company that begins “Dear Burglars…” Most revealing though are the letters to his wife and kids, letters that chronicle the strength his most intimate relationships supplied. One lengthy letter sent to his young son from prison is read by Nathan Lane. Trumbo was sending his son two books: one on howdaltontrumbo.jpg to beat your friends at cards, another he intended as a masturbation tutorial, a book called Sex Without Guilt. He shares a filthy and absurdist look at his own guilt-wracked feelings as an onanist and assures his son that he won’t share his dilemma, because he is the son of “masturbator’s masturbator”.

Still, it is the shadow of the blacklist that hangs over the proceedings, a time when a person could be stripped of his profession for refusing to answer questions about perfectly legal, constitutionally-protected activities partaken decades before. It conjures up every paranoid’s worst nightmare to see Trumbo’s testimony before HUAC. When Trumbo proclaims he’d like to see the evidence against him the questioner gives a condescending laugh, “Oh, I bet you would.” The film’s gentile handling of Trumbo’s flirtation with communism reminds us just how loaded the charge still is in some quarters, despite the probability of Communist infiltration being only slightly higher than an invasion from Mars at this late date. One could (and should) take the time to place these events into the context of their times but Trumbo ends by coming back to this premise: who would like a man who informs on his friend? Trumbo is premised on the notion that the universal answer, even in this age of terror, is “no one.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *