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Movie Review

Spotlighting one of America's darker hours

trumbo Donald Sutherland and Joan Allen are among the actors in the film who perform readings of Dalton Trumbo's letters. (SAMUEL GOLDWYN FILMS AND RED ENVELOPE ENTERTAINMENT)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 15, 2008
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Here's Dalton Trumbo's advice for the newly blacklisted. One: Sell your house while it still fetches a decent market price. Two: Find as much work as you possibly can before the news goes public. Three: "Get ready to become nothing."

Who is Dalton Trumbo? It's a legitimate question if you don't know your annals of American shame. He was a prize-winning novelist and successful Hollywood screenwriter before World War II, a soldier who saw heavy action in the Pacific during the war, a pariah and a jailbird afterward.

In 1950, he and nine other colleagues in the film industry went to prison for contempt of Congress because they refused to be bullied by the House Un-American Activities Committee into discussing their leftist politics and pointing fingers at others. "It was a just verdict," Trumbo said later. "I had contempt for that Congress, and several since."

Trumbo was probably the most cantankerously articulate of the Hollywood 10, and he did not go gently into that dark night. Peter Askin's "Trumbo," an adaptation of a stage play written by the writer's son Christopher Trumbo, is a celebration of a large-hearted contrarian, and if it's over-worshipful, the film gets you in an indulgent frame of mind. Trumbo simply wrote so well - so cleanly, so amusingly, and with such deep moral roots - that it's a pleasure to hear him rant.

The film traces its subject's journey chronologically, through family home-movie footage, in the reminiscences of Trumbo's grown children and such Hollywood friends as Kirk Douglas (interviewed post-stroke and very moving), and through dramatized readings of his letters by acting heavyweights Liam Neeson, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, and Donald Sutherland. Nathan Lane, who played Trumbo onstage, is on hand to read one of the writer's more hilarious missives, a playful encomium to his college-age son on the benefits of masturbation.

The prevailing tone is more serious. "Trumbo" traces the wanderings of the humiliated screenwriter from his HUAC testimony to jail to Mexico City - an all-too-brief sojourn with fellow blacklistees Ring Lardner Jr, Ian Hunter, and Hugo Butler - and back to Hollywood for a grinding, anonymous existence writing screenplays under pseudonyms. When Trumbo's story for "The Brave One" won a 1956 Oscar, credited writer "Robert Rich" wasn't able to claim the award, since he didn't formally exist. "That small, worthless statuette," Trumbo said, "is covered with the blood of my friends."

Where "Trumbo" falls short is in articulating the extent of the man's political activism. Unlike some of his colleagues, Trumbo joined the Communist party as late as the early 1940s, and the extent of his engagement is never quantified. The seduction of the early American Left by dreams of socialist utopia has never been fully explicated, and it certainly isn't here. Trumbo was a victim of American idealism and American paranoia - two warring sides of the same coin. We never find out what that meant to him.

Instead, we learn the sad, fascinating day-to-day details of an underground man in 1950s America, often in Trumbo's own words ported over from earlier documentaries. The innocents suffered most: Trumbo's loyal wife, Cleo, and their three children. He kept his hand in, though, writing classics like "Roman Holiday" and classic trash like "Gun Crazy," eventually getting credited by name once more on 1960's "Spartacus" and "Exodus." In 1971, he finally directed his first movie, an adaptation of his 1939 anti-war novel "Johnny Got His Gun."

He lived through the blacklist, and he broke it, and for youthful movie fans who don't know their history, this documentary will come as shocking evidence of Hollywood's propensity for eating its young. Trumbo never wavered in his belief that his persecution was only a horrible symptom. He understood the real victim of blacklist America was America itself.

Trumbo

Directed by: Peter Askin

Written by: Christopher Trumbo, based on his play

Starring: Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Nathan Lane, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: PG-13 ("sex-related commentary" - i.e., one rude and extremely funny soliloquy on the subject of self-pleasure)

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