Review by Nathan Samdahl (B)
Trumbo tells the remarkable story of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the famed Hollywood 10, who were indicted and convicted for contempt of congress during the HUAC trials of the late forties. Adapted from the play created by Trumbo’s son Christopher Trumbo, the film chronicles Dalton’s life, from his rise to being one of the most sought after screenwriters working in Hollywood to being placed on the Hollywood blacklist to writing under pseudonyms and winning an Academy Award. All in all, Dalton Trumbo is responsible for some of the great film works of the 20th century including Spartacus, Roman Holiday, Johnny Got His Gun and Papillon. Many of the stories he wrote strongly mirrored his own life often involving characters that were alienated from society and that stayed true to their morals and beliefs in the face of adversity. Director Peter Askin weaves together stock footage, interviews and most importantly the reading of some of Dalton Trumbo’s beautifully crafted letters by a tour de force ensemble of actors to tell a great story of a great man.
The quality of the actors gathered to read the letters is a testament to the legacy of Dalton Trumbo and the respect he has in the film community. Each member of the cast, which includes Michael Douglas, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Joan Allen, Liam Neeson and Paul Giamatti, is on screen for no more than about five minutes, but each brings new life to the witty and pointed letters Trumbo wrote, many in response to the wrongs done to him by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the societal backlash that followed. While the presentation of the letters seems directly pulled from the stage play by Christopher Trumbo, with minimalist sets and rather theatrical line delivery, the strength of the actors keeps the audience invested for the most part. There were a few times where my attention wandered or where I was distracted by the performances. Joan Allen’s literal reading of one of the letters (meaning she actually was reading off of a sheet of paper) seemed a bit awkward since all the rest of the letters were memorized including another one by her later in the story. Also, Josh Lucas, who is a strong young actor, seemed a bit out of his league in comparison to his co-stars in the film, which was probably realized by the filmmakers who nearly completely cut him out of the ending of the film when the actors are edited together reading the same letter. These, however, are minor issues in a film that succeeds in many ways.
I often have issues with the introduction of theatrical stage conventions into a film as they often come across as awkward (the recent adaptation of The Producers is a perfect example). However, for telling the story of Dalton Trumbo, his letters are key and visually performing them is certainly much more powerful than simple voiceover. Even so, more footage such as from the HUAC trials and more anecdotes from the people that knew him, in place of one or two of the letters could have helped strengthen the pacing of the film, which lagged at a few points, especially in the second half of the film.
While the conventions used in Trumbo help it stand apart in the documentary genre, they also limit the interest in the film (which I am sure is no surprise to the filmmakers) certainly more to the art house crowd than to a mainstream audience. This is a bit disappointing since Trumbo’s journey in and out of Hollywood is a fascinating and devastating one that people should know about and one that certainly is very relevant in the current political and social climate. While it might not be top on your list of films to see, Trumbo is a high quality film that should be watched, if only to learn a bit about the plight of one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters of the last century.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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