Trumbo: Whitewashing the Life of a Blacklisted Writer

Trumbo, a new documentary recalling the life and career of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, clearly wants to honor its subject.

And Trumbo, based on a stage play written by Trumbo's son Christopher Trumbo, does just that. But the film's take on the Oscar-winning scribe and Communist sympathizer proves revealing in ways the audience might not expect.

The writer rejected his homeland's economic system but couldn't wait to cash his screenwriting checks. He spoke of the horrors of war but dreamed of smiting his enemies with a fury that doesn't befit a man of peace. And he clearly relished his role as a martyr, going so far as to view his children's challenges as another cross for him to bear.

Victims of the blacklist remain a key source of anger among today's Hollywood elite. Recall the bitter reaction during the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony when director Elia Kazan, who "named names" to the House Un-American Activities Committee, got a Lifetime Achievement Award.

So it's easy to understand why a modest documentary assembled such an impressive roster of actors -- Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, and Paul Giamatti to name a few -- to read some of Trumbo's letters to friends and foes alike.

Those readings, combined with clips of Trumbo himself addressing his situation, flesh out a story that leaps back and forth in time to clumsy effect.

Documenting a screenwriter's battle with the government hardly gives Trumbo director Peter Askin much room for theatricality. So he cheats, occasionally with excellent results. He has the actors read their letters in a faux stage setting, stripped of most props save a glass of water and a generous dose of self-righteous rage.

The letters themselves seem as if Trumbo had peered into the future and seen the lineup of actors eager to read them. They're the meticulous ramblings of a man who saw any letter as an opportunity to tap his prodigious vocabulary.

The film deals with the intricacies of his battle with the phone company, but it never discusses Trumbo's political viewpoints. That mirrors Trumbo's assertion that such matters should be deeply personal, and private.

But politics aren't always private, especially when the person in question uses his powers to affect the masses. Trumbo's screenplays often reflected his ideological views, making his beliefs more than just a personal matter. A clip from his film Johnny Got His Gun is particularly chilling.

And Trumbo doesn't mention the atrocities, or at the very least the freedom-clamping effect, of the Soviets' brand of Communism. That wouldn't fit in neatly with this narrative.