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Exhuming McCarthy: 'Trumbo' Profiles the Blacklisted Screenwriter

By Tamara Krinsky

When Peter Askin signed on to direct the documentary Trumbo, he didn’t set out to make a political film. He simply wanted to bring the story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to a wider audience. It was sheer luck—some would say society’s misfortune—that a project that he first began working on prior to the events of September 11, 2001, would still have political resonance eight years later. 

Trumbo the documentary is based upon the acclaimed play of the same name, which Askin helped to develop and direct. The stage piece, written by Dalton’s son Chris, is constructed of the elder Trumbo’s powerful, eloquent and often funny letters. When in 1999 Askin was first given Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962, he knew little about the man who penned Roman Holiday, Exodus, The Brave One and Spartacus.

David Straithairn
Actor David Straithairn, one of the readers in Peter Askin's 'Trumbo,' which opens June 27 through Goldwyn Pictures.

Dalton Trumbo was in the midst of a successful novel- and screenwriting career when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. Though he had been a member of the Communist Party since 1943, he refused to admit to it. Furthermore, he would not cooperate in naming names of fellow party members. Along with the other screenwriters who came to be known as the Hollywood Ten, he claimed that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution gave him the right to remain silent.

Unfortunately, HUAC did not agree with this interpretation of the law, and Trumbo was convicted of contempt of Congress and sent to federal penitentiary for a year. After his release, he was blacklisted by the studios and forced to write under a variety of pseudonyms and front men for a much-reduced rate. It was only when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger gave Trumbo screen credit for Spartacus and Exodus, respectively, that the blacklist finally came to an end in 1960.

“I took [the play] on as soon as I was introduced to the letters,” says Askin. “They’re extraordinary. I think Dalton Trumbo’s a wonderful screenwriter, but I think his letters even stand apart from that. Then once we did it as a stage piece, I saw how actors responded to it and felt the potential was there for a film.” 

Trumbo is constructed of filmed performances of different actors reading the letters, movie clips, archival footage and interviews with Trumbo and his family. There’s just enough information about the blacklist and the HUAC hearings to acquaint unfamiliar viewers with the events of the time period without turning it into a purely political or historical film. Askin felt that this had been done already, and it was important to him to keep the film centered on Trumbo’s personal experiences.

Instead of a sweeping history of McCarthyism, the documentary focuses on the specifics of Dalton Trumbo’s situation: going broke because of not being able to write, the embarrassment of having to borrow money from friends, moving to Mexico for opportunities that never materialize. It’s the very real story of how the blacklist affected a family. There’s a heartbreaking moment when his daughter talks about not learning until her mid-30s that her father had written the story on which Roman Holiday was based.

 “As long as a story is personal and it carries emotion, I think that saves you from becoming didactic,” Askin maintains. “If you set out to tell a political story, a macro story like the blacklist, you run that risk, particularly in a documentary.”

Dalton Trumbo
Writer Dalton Trumbo, subject of Peter Askin's 'Trumbo,' which opens in theaters June 27 through Samuel Goldwyn Films. Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Trumbo’s letters form the spine of the film, and help a great deal in anchoring the film in the emotional realm. The audience becomes invested in Trumbo’s story via the passion, wit and audacity found in his marvelous language. An all-star cast, including Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Matthew McConaughey, Donald Sutherland and David Strathairn, deliver first-rate performances. Standouts include Nathan Lane’s hysterical reading of a letter Trumbo had written to his son Chris about masturbation, and Donald Sutherland’s impassioned excerpt from Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun.

Porting the vibrancy of stage performances to film can be tricky, but Askin does an admirable job. The actors were shot at varying angles on a stage in a black-box theater. Liberal use of extreme close-ups fosters a sense of intimacy between audience and actor. Askin said that during production, there was debate as to whether or not the close-ups would be off-putting, but ultimately the decision was made to stick with them so that the cast could tell the story with their eyes. The visual style works well, and with each performance, the viewer feels as though he or she is glimpsing a different facet of Trumbo’s soul.

While Askin suspected that the rich language of the letters would land well with audiences, he still had to figure out how to make them work in the film. “Letters by their nature are idiosyncratic and never written to become the dramatic spine of anything,” he explains. “They’re anecdotal and they veer. The challenge was how to make that work without having to supply a narrator, which didn’t thrill me. I think the real discovery was the wonderful moment when we realized we actually had some interview footage with Trumbo himself.”

Trumbo’s presence in the film ups the emotional commitment for the audience. Suddenly, he goes from being a mythological figure of the blacklist—one of the iconoclastic Hollywood Ten—to a flesh-and-blood father, husband and friend. He is charismatic and wry, ornery and articulate, stubborn and fiercely principled. Watching the contrarian in action, viewers can easily understand why he rankled some and earned the unabashed admiration of others.

Though Askin succeeds in his goal of creating a personal film, an unintended side effect is that he creates a very effective political film as well, albeit on a more subtle level. Watching different actors inhabit Trumbo subliminally communicates the idea that his fate could befall anyone who speaks out unfavorably against those in power. Indeed, during rehearsals for the play, cast member Tim Robbins’ film Bull Durham was pulled from a screening at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, because of his political leanings. One night following a performance of the play, a fan approached actor Chris Cooper and said, “You just made John Ashcroft’s list.”
With the post-9/11 curtailing of civil liberties, the Patriot Act and the upcoming presidential election hovering in the back of one’s consciousness, the film’s footage of the HUAC hearings takes on an unintended significance. Though it occurred over 50 years ago, Trumbo’s brave testimony is a potent reminder that the right to freedom of speech is something that must constantly be defended.

“Irrespective of who’s elected, we have a chance to redress some of our recent history,” Askin notes. “Certainly, that’s a good thing. It’s an exciting time to have it reinforced that these First Amendment freedoms have been a part of our history and something that some very courageous people have fought to maintain.”

Trumbo premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released theatrically in the US by Samuel Goldwyn Films. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 27, followed by release in select cities throughout July.


Actress/writer Tamara Krinsky is the associate editor of Documentary magazine, host of the consumer tech show The Spotlight on and a member of the Los Angeles classical theater ensemble The Antaeus Company.