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‘Trumbo’ shines light on a blacklisted writer

Dalton Trumbo’s words — thunderous, eloquent, ribald and sometimes even tender — provide the spine and substance of the documentary “Trumbo,” about the blacklisted screenwriter.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s a clever approach to a complicated man.

Dalton Trumbo’s words — thunderous, eloquent, ribald and sometimes even tender — provide the spine and substance of the documentary “Trumbo,” about the blacklisted screenwriter.

Based on the play by Trumbo’s son, Christopher, director Peter Askin’s film features actors performing Trumbo’s letters, with archival footage and new interviews sprinkled in between. One at a time, they stand on a stark stage without the aid of sets or props, looking straight into the camera, often in extreme close-up. The lighting is crisp and provides a disarming intimacy.

Some of them — Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti — already had appeared in the stage production. All have a clear reverence for the writer, whose credits included “Spartacus,” “Exodus” and “Papillon,” and who often was forced to write under assumed names as one of the suspected communists known as the Hollywood 10. (He even won a best-story Academy Award for “The Brave One” as Robert Rich, and famously didn’t take the stage to accept the award at the 1957 ceremony.)

Perhaps because the screenwriter here is Christopher Trumbo himself, “Trumbo” teeters on deifying its subject; even negative aspects of his personality, such as his heavy drinking, mishandling of money and quick temper, are portrayed as amusing, passionate or idiosyncratic. There’s also an overall tone of self-righteousness to the piece, as if to suggest that falling short of worshipping Trumbo would be blasphemous.

But the man could turn a phrase, and when he had trouble getting work because he had been targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, he focused his formidable skills on letter writing. Trumbo also spent a year in prison for contempt of Congress, and signed off during this time as “Dalton Trumbo, Prisoner No. 7551.”

That’s how he ended an atypically sweet letter to his beloved wife, Cleo, on the occasion of their 13th wedding anniversary (besides Christopher, the couple also had two daughters; Trumbo died in 1976). As read by hunky, blue-eyed Josh Lucas, this missive reveals glimmers of Trumbo’s vulnerable, sensitive side.

Trumbo could also turn his talents — and talons — on the faceless, soulless phone company, for example (Giamatti bubbles to a boil with this wonderfully sarcastic letter that contains snarky holiday greetings and is signed, “Irritably yours”). But he also lashed out at a school principal, blaming her for the ostracism his daughter, Mitzi, suffered because of his professional troubles.

Besides Giamatti, Michael Douglas and Donald Sutherland supply some of the movie’s most powerful moments. They truly seem to get the cadence of the words, with an appropriate gleam in the eye.

It also seems fitting to include David Strathairn among the ensemble — Edward R. Murrow himself in “Good Night, and Good Luck” — and to have him read from Trumbo’s speech upon receiving the Writers Guild’s Laurel Award: “The blacklist was a time of evil. ... No one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil.”

If nothing else, “Trumbo” serves as a homage to a lost art form. In these harried times, when the dangerous practice of text messaging while driving has become the standard form of communication, a well-crafted letter feels like a rare gift. Trumbo himself would be an oddity in today’s Hollywood, as well — someone who consistently stood up for what he believed in, regardless of consequence. These days, they’d call him difficult.