Jun 26, 2008

On Trumbo

In his new documentary Trumbo, director Peter Askin sticks to the basics; he by and large succeeds. His film, while not quite Ken Burns dry, hews to the basic playbook of stock archival footage accompanied with interviews of the friends and loved ones of the talented maverick author at its center, one whose story perhaps holds a lesson for all Americans living in these troubled yet fascinating times for our democracy. Trumbo was a man who in perhaps an equally absurd era, stood up for the underlying liberal American ideas that were challenged by the post war fascistic paranoia known as McCarthyism and, as such, represents a very appealing figure to, while venerating him, wrap our contemporary concerns around as well. Askin, with the help of a slew of famous people, does just that, but not it such a way that he risks his credibility or his subject’s grace.

Dalton Trumbo was a fun loving Mountain boy who grew into a skilled scribe, playful drunkard, loving family man, poor manager of money and, perhaps most importantly in the docs view, an eloquent defender of the 1st amendment in the face of the brute congressional hordes. Made with the full support of the subject’s family and surviving friends, this look at the life of blacklisted screenwriter and Charlie Got His Gun author, who wrote Hollywood screenplays for nearly a decade under assumed names in Mexican exile after the blacklist took effect, won an Oscar for The Brave One (no, not the Jodie Foster shitstorm), a script he was not given credit for many years and winner of the only Academy Award not to be claimed at the ceremony.

Askin doesn’t hide its absolute adoration of its wily subject, nor should he. In this unassuming and deliberate doc, one which, while documenting a fascinating if at times difficult to penetrate life, takes a hard look at how Amrica’s past resonances in our dark contemporary times, Askin views Trumbo's life as a prism through which to offer us the vaguest blueprint for some way forward. To wit – the courage to speak and act with commitment, loyalty and wisdom in the face of the narcissistic moralizing and war mongering of the American right and the hegemonic forces of control beyond it is paramount.

Trumbo was also who would in the film’s most humorous revelation of his letters a supreme appreciation for masturbation. As rendered by Nathan Lane, one of many celebrities who appear on camera to read Trumbo's words, this letter to his son is just about perfectly delivered.As the film weaves wonderful archival footage of his evasive and quick-witted House Committee on Un-American Activities testimonies with readings of his work by the likes of Lane, Liam Neeson, David Straithairn, Joan Allen, Paul Giamatti, Michael Douglas, Brian Dennehy, Donald Southerland and Josh Lucas (Josh Lucas? Sticks out like a sore thumb) is the film’s biggest aesthetic (and commercial) coup. Fortunately, they have word well worth reading.