Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
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As much as we love a good story, the storyteller is just as intriguing. The lives of authors are at once inspirational and enigmatic, since they can make the job of entertaining and enlightening seem effortless, even routine. Our wonderment about the author has something to do with our belief in the “myth of genius,” what we believe can make an everyman into a great artist. When hearing of the writer’s life, be it a biography or a documentary, we want to experience the genius while witnessing the mere person behind the great byline.
Hence, the author documentary is never out of fashion. Currently, the late Hunter S. Thompson’s story in “Gonzo” clears away cultism to evaluate the author’s solid body of work, while “Dreams with Sharp Teeth,” about short fiction maestro Harlan Ellison, deconstructs the “myth of genius” by bringing us ringside to a productive craftsman. Now “Trumbo” presents a writer who initially thrived in the Hollywood studio system, while legend and a number of personal accounts assert that Hollywood submerges creativity for salable product.
After establishing himself as a novelist – the mass-market mainstay “Johnny Got His Gun” is his most famous – Dalton Trumbo was one of the most reliable screenwriters of the 1930s and 1940s. He soon became a favorite of directors and stars, while he maintained a distinct voice and style in his scripts, one of which, “Kitty Foyle,” earned him an Oscar in 1940. Like the pantheon of golden-age directors – Hawks, Ford, Wilder – but unlike many of his counterparts, Trumbo could operate within various Hollywood genres while managing to vitalize them. As F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West swore that Hollywood was where true writers went to die, Trumbo showed that it could be a land of opportunity for the creative.
By itself, the golden age of Trumbo’s career would make for an inspired documentary. But, alas, history situates him in another story, a tragedy that nearly consumed him and many other members of Hollywood.
While affordable ticket prices helped movies triumph in the face of the depression and the Second World War, America soon fell under the pall of Stalin’s threat. Fearing that Russian dictator’s influence would spread through the free world, The House of Un-American Activities Committee would put the trials of alleged communists into high profile. Beginning in 1947, the blacklisting of alleged Communists members of Hollywood spread another fear throughout America – that the enemy of the people was strong enough to have infiltrated the silver screen. To get such a widespread reaction, the House strategically looked to America’s most beloved industry.
The House soon brought to the media those called the Hollywood Ten. After one member, Dalton Trumbo, refused to testify – and a banging gavel signaled his dark fate taking shape – his last hyperbolic statement, that the House was a “concentration camp for writers,” wasn’t too far off.
Thus, this documentary (based on the stage play by Trumbo’s son, Christopher, who adapted it for the screen) often depicts the author as a victim of the blacklist. To escape his loss of work in the U.S., Trumbo relocated to Mexico and wrote for the screen under more than ten pseudonyms. Yet in an archival interview – one of many that make the author a distinct presence in the film – Trumbo recalls that reestablishing himself in Mexico was like “finding work at midnight in a thick fog among strangers.” His eloquence when describing the hard times suggests the kind of wisdom attainable only after such a personal tragedy.
After secretly reconnecting to Hollywood, he had to produce much more to eek out a living, though he’d soon embarrass Hollywood by winning Oscars in 1953 (for “Roman Holiday”) and in 1956 (for “The Brave One”) for obvious fronts. When the fictitious writer of “The Brave One” was nowhere to be found, the media was at Trumbo’s doorstep, where he shrugged off the scandal from back north. He worked in Mexico until 1960, when star/producer Kirk Douglas pressured the studio to credit Trumbo in name on “Spartacus,” as did director Otto Preminger for Trumbo’s script for “Exodus.” Though Trumbo’s often remembered today as a victim, his reemergence proves him to be a dauntless hero.
This documentary’s narrative feels deliberately chronological, as the storyline adheres to the major steps of Trumbo’s career. Nonetheless, the film realizes many great moments to make the writer’s story – often reduced to a footnote – into an intriguing one. Many points suggest him to be another quirky artist, not the least of which is the famous photo of him scripting a story in a bathtub, cigar in hand. In “Trumbo,” such inclusions reveal the quirks of creativity more than the stereotype of the oddball genius.
To sample the author’s work – and remind us of what an artist he was – the documentary features dramatic readings from Trumbo’s large collection of letters. The performers recreating these moments from the stageplay include Michael Douglas, quite fittingly, along with Paul Giamatti, Donald Sutherland, and other famous faces. The use of the staged readings feels at first like a gimmick to free up the film’s exposition, which at times needs the help. Yet the contemporary actors represent a tradition that can thrive thanks to the 10, and help make for a worthy tribute.
Posted on July 24, 2008 in Reviews by Matthew Sorrento
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