The new documentary “Trumbo” unites two of the most unbearable groups of zealots in the modern world: Communists and theater people.
If there’s anything worse than receiving a lecture on the martyrdom and sainthood of the occasionally skillful (and often mediocre) screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, it’s witnessing this lie being shouted to the cheap seats by a gang of air-groping, audience-wheedling, eyebrow-flailing performers who seem to have been directed to make sure we never forget, for even one sentence, that they are Acting.
Liam Neeson, Michael Douglas, Nathan Lane, David Strathairn, Paul Giamatti, Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, and Donald Sutherland take turns reading the letters of Dalton Trumbo about his travails with HUAC, his subsequent jailing on contempt charges, his blacklisting, his return to work under assumed names and his return to credited work in 1960, when he was listed as the writer of both “Exodus” and “Spartacus.”
Each of these honorary citizens of Thespia strives to be insufferable in his own way, and is greatly assisted by the scenery. “Trumbo” is based on an epistolary play put together by Trumbo’s son Christopher, and just to make for an excessively literal big-screen rendering the actors are seen against backdrops as black as Joe McCarthy’s heart, seated at honest proletarian workshop-y tables unadorned by anything except one plaintive, hard-working, nothing-to-hide-here glass of water each.
The letters the actors read range from blistering to merely maladroit. The prize for the latter must go to a rococo missive about masturbation that never comes close to being funny in spite of, or perhaps because of, the almost pleading look of jocularity worn by Nathan Lane as he declaims it. The best example of the former, perhaps, is one read by David Strathairn. Here Strathairn, still employing his quavering justice-seeking Edward R. Murrow format from “Good Night, and Good Luck,” quotes Trumbo as railing against the injustice of… his daughter’s school. Apparently the little girl was being mocked by her peers because of her father’s notoriety. I can almost hear Trumbo’s mother saying, “Maybe you should have thought of that before you joined the Communist Party,” which Trumbo did in 1943.
Not that the film ever actually states that Trumbo was a committed Party stalwart, and long after the fashionable set around him had turned away from it. Called to testify before HUAC as one of the “Unfriendly Ten” (“Of the ten, two had talent, the rest were just unfriendly”—Billy Wilder), Trumbo was trapped. The film, which intersperses the readings of the holy letters with more tolerable documentary footage of Trumbo and his times, obfuscates every inch of the way but if Trumbo had been a truth teller, a standup guy, a fighter for what he truly believed in, he would have simply told Joe McCarthy he was a Communist and then gone home to supper. He chose not to not because being a Communist was against the law but because the public admission would have made him Hollywood Kryptonite. (“Trumbo” says its subject was once the highest-paid screenwriter. He is often cited as the author of “Roman Holiday” and the Spencer Tracy classic “A Guy Named Joe”—risibly referred to by “Trumbo” director Peter Askin in the press notes as “Five Guys Named Joe”–but unlike Wilder he mostly churned out standard, long-forgotten studio fare.)
HUAC testimony had only “ritualistic significance” anyway, Trumbo admitted in a letter cited by Ronald and Allis Radosh in their essential book, Red Star Over Hollywood, since everyone already knew who the Hollywood Communists were. Trumbo didn’t want to plead the Fifth since that would amount to an admission of something to hide, so he and others cited the First Amendment, a defense so spurious that it was not even granted certiorari by a liberal Supreme Court. Trumbo served eleven months in federal prison for contempt.
Counting on the youth or stupidity of its audience, “Trumbo” has not a word to say against Communism (instead, with doe-eyed wonder, it points out that the Soviets were our allies after Hitler invaded the USSR, as though this meant U.S. approval of Stalinism) but does supply us with such irrelevant gossip as the information that 1950’s Lefties believed that they were going to be put in the same concentration camps so recently built by the Roosevelt administration to make involuntary guests of thousands of innocent and unaccused Japanese-Americans. The film skips over the fact that the radicals never actually were rounded up. So oblique is this bit that some viewers may leave the theater convinced that there was some sort of mass internment of Communists in the U.S.
While blacklisted, Trumbo was determined not to forfeit his posh living standards, so he worked harder than ever. Unemployment was never a problem. (He confessed he had been “a happier man since the blacklist than before it,” a comment quoted by the Radoshes’ book that, naturally, does not appear in the movie.) He blurted out 12 scripts in 18 months, using either other people’s names or imaginary ones. When his script for “The Brave One,” credited to Robert Rich, won an Oscar, no one picked it up. (Trumbo himself got the statue a year before his death in 1976).
The film is eager to present Trumbo as a patriot and a democrat, but relying so heavily on its subject’s words doesn’t leave it with much of an opportunity to come across as moderate. Included is a clip from the Trumbo-directed film of his National Book Award-winning antiwar novel “Johnny Got His Gun.” A young son is shown soaking up wisdom from his dad in a scene staged like a corny educational film meant for 1950s summer campers. Yet the dialogue, written by the guy who gave us films like “Tender Comrade,” comes crashing in from the fringe. When the son asks about democracy, the father replies, “It’s got something to do with young men killing each other.” Spoken like a true Stalinist.