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When Some Stood Up: A Review of Trumbo

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Jul 3, 2008

Trumbo
A documentary, written by Christopher Trumbo and directed by Peter Askin
Filbert Steps Productions, Reno Productions, and Safehouse Pictures, 2007

 

The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one on either side of it came through it untouched by evil. —Dalton Trumbo, 1970

In 1934, a young writer named Dalton Trumbo decided to try his luck in the movies. He succeeded. He became a successful screenwriter, married happily, published an antiwar novel (Johnny Got His Gun) destined to become a classic, and got an Oscar nomination.

In 1943, he joined the Communist Party, to which he was already close. (Johnny Got His Gun was written and published during the USSR-German détente after their 1939 non-aggression agreement; the book was withdrawn from circulation at Trumbo’s request in 1941, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union.) By 1947, Trumbo was among the best-known and highest-paid of Hollywood writers.

Then his luck ran out. In October, 1947, HUAC—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities—held hearings on “subversive” influences in Hollywood, summoning actors, writers, and directors to testify about their politics and their colleagues’. Ten, including Trumbo, refused to testify and were cited for contempt of Congress, eventually serving prison time and becoming known as the “Hollywood Ten.” In November 1947, Hollywood created a blacklist when 48 movie executives met in New York City and declared that they would no longer employ anyone who had refused to testify before HUAC. (I should disclose here that the blacklist touched my family and my childhood. As just one example, I arrived one day at a friend’s house to see my uncle, a journalist, on the TV news, declining to answer a Senate Committee on Fifth Amendment grounds. Thrilled, proud, and afraid that my friend’s parents would notice that his name was the same as mine, I stood in front of the set to block their view.)

After 11 months in federal prison, Trumbo returned to writing screenplays, but, until 1960, only under pseudonyms or the names of others—“fronts.” Then actor Kirk Douglas and the German-born Otto Preminger employed him to write Spartacus and Exodus, respectively, under his own name, and the blacklist was effectively broken. Late in his life, in an interview, Trumbo declared that all governments—presumably meaning that of the Soviet Union, which he had supported, as well as that of the United States—are driven to abuse their power and force people “to confess.”

Dalton Trumbo died in 1976. In 2003, his son Christopher crafted a play from his father’s speeches and letters, called Trumbo. Now Christopher Trumbo and director Peter Askin have fashioned a documentary film composed almost entirely of Dalton Trumbo’s own words (except for interviews with his friends and family), from archival footage of him and readings from his letters.

Few documentary scripts have been so blessed. In interviews, Trumbo’s family and peers repeatedly describe him as “brilliant.” The letters and Trumbo’s interviews testify far better to his brilliance than the formula-shaped screenplays of his time could have. (On leaving Exodus, a young man I knew murmured, “He should have stayed blacklisted.”) Indeed, the temptation when reviewing a film so filled with gems of wit is to write the review by stringing together the gems.

That isn’t possible here. But the words are brilliant—alternately powerful, moving, and very funny—and brilliantly read by fine actors, notably including Joan Allen, Donald Sutherland, David Strathairn, Michael Douglas, and Nathan Lane, who brings his comedic best to a hilarious reading of a letter to then-teenaged Christopher accompanying a gift of a “manual for masturbators,” the book Sex Without Guilt by “the greatest humanitarian since Gandhi, Albert Ellis, PhD.”

Trumbo is more than a little worshipful. But it gives a forceful explication of a bleak and regrettable moment in U.S. history, a powerful and inspiring portrait of some who stood for their principles and against the tide at any price, and, for good measure, a wonderful cascade of gorgeous language and wordplay.

—Judith Mahoney Pasternak

Trumbo is currently playing in theaters. Judith’s travel writing is online at political-landscape.blogspot.com.


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