Friday, September 18, 2009
Out this week on DVD is the captivating documentary, Trumbo. Based on the play by his son Christopher Trumbo, it should more accurately be called a docudrama. It looks at screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's fall from grace after his refusal to name names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating Hollywood for its ties to the communist party. At one time, Trumbo (Kitty Foyle) was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. But the political atmosphere grew increasingly paranoid in the face of the ascension of the Soviets to the status of superpower. And many Hollywood liberals were targeted for their membership in the communist party during an earlier time when Russia was a US ally. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, ten writers and directors who refused to give up other members on the basis of the freedom of speech provision of the First Amendment. He was found in contempt of Congress, sent to prison for close to a year, and was blacklisted in Hollywood. After some lean years during which he had to support his family by writing screenplays under various pseudonyms, his name was once again allowed onto the credits of a film in Spartacus (1960), and Exodus (1960) soon after. In 1975 (one year before his death), he would go on to accept an Oscar for his story for The Brave One (1956), an award never picked up in 1957 because he had written it under the pseudonym Robert Rich. And in the nineties, records would later be changed to reflect him as the winner for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story for 1953's Roman Holiday. Trumbo cleverly supplements the traditional home movies, still photographs, present day interviews, and archival interviews with the subject one usually sees in these types of films, with dramatic readings of the screenwriter's numerous personal letters as read by prominent actors. Famous faces like Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, Liam Neeson, and Donald Sutherland each bring their own distinct style to their first-person readings as Trumbo. The most comical is Nathan Lane's reading of a letter from Trumbo to his son, an ode to the freedom he hopes his son feels when masturbating, a freedom that he never felt growing up in his time. The whimsical musical score by Robert Miller should also be noted here for reflecting the impish nature of Dalton Trumbo, a man whose wit and sarcasm could cut almost any enemy down to size, as some of the readings demonstrate. Through each reading and the appropriately paired documentary footage, one gains a greater understanding of not only the political trials, but also the practical economic ones that Trumbo faced in providing for his family during the oppressive era of the Red Scare. Given the current paranoia in the world of politics, Trumbo proves to be a timely primer in weathering such a storm, and its DVD is well worth seeking out.