There is a time-honored debate that has taken place in classrooms, dormitories, and coffeehouses for generations. It is the old "form versus content" question, posed and re-posed over and over again for time immemorial by rabid humanities students who feel convinced that there is one true answer and that they are on the cusp of identifying it. It's a conversation that is both useful and ultimately futile. For artists, there is a reason to figure out an answer to it in terms of one's own work - but for observers and critics, the debate's utility lies in identifying how one values, processes, and comprehends art; in other words, it's an exercise in self-discovery. Because I am a writer (and one who plies his craft beyond the scope of movie reviews), I apply writerly values in my work for DVDTalk - and when it comes to a documentary film about a writer, that viewpoint will be even more pronounced.
At the risk of sounding like one of those self-important undergraduates myself, this long-winded introduction
is meant to provide context for my opinion that the documentary format
is not an ideal one for the content - specifically the dramatized letters - contained in Trumbo, directed
by Peter Askin from Christopher Trumbo's play of the same title.
The play and the film recount the life of blacklisted Oscar-winning
screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, mainly through his letters. Screen
time is divided between typical docu-style interviews and archival footage,
and dramatic readings of Trumbo's letters by the likes of Michael
Douglas, Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, and Joan Allen. The juxtaposition
of these two elements - documentary film and dramatic readings -
doesn't really gel, and results in a less-than-complete view of this
fascinating man's life and work.
Dalton Trumbo makes for a rich
documentary subject. As a member of the Hollywood Ten - the
justly famous group of "uncooperative" witnesses who refused to
name suspected or actual Communists in their midst before the House
Un-American Activities Committee - and as the writer of Spartacus,
Papillion, A Guy Named Joe, and the novel and film of
Johnny Got His Gun, Trumbo's highs and lows illustrate a colorful
and frightening time in American history. Beyond his Hollywood
profession, Trumbo was an accomplished novelist, and a dedicated and
loving family man.
This film focuses upon the
period of the blacklist, for in many ways this was the defining crisis
of Trumbo's life. During the period that followed his imprisonment
for contempt of Congress, Trumbo's family (along with the families
of three colleagues who shared Trumbo's fate) went into exile in Mexico for
a few years, where they had to re-make their writing careers
from scratch. Mostly, this meant obtaining work from sympathetic
producers who were nonetheless forced to credit "fronts" instead
of the blacklisted writers themselves.
Most of the letters here deal
directly or indirectly with the blacklist as well, and they serve as
an indispensible chronicle of Trumbo's life. I plan to seek
out the published letters; I can tell from this film's sampling that
they must make essential reading. While I understand that the
play upon which this film is based was entirely comprised of readings
of the letters, I have doubts as to whether they should be "performed"
at all. Trumbo practiced the art of letter writing as a very specific
form of communication, one that depended upon expressing his particular
voice through the printed word. Just like the most brilliant authors
of prose, who often botch oral presentation of their work at the 92nd
Street Y or the local Borders, letter-writers don't have a live
audience in mind. For this reason, there is something mildly artificial
about the readings in Trumbo - even though these fine actors
offer up thoughtful, heartfelt interpretations of Trumbo's voice.
But even David Strathairn, who I place in the first tier of living American
actors, can't make a "performed" letter feel authentic.
The focus on the era of the
blacklist, along with the lengthy letter-readings, crowds out other elements of his life. For
example, we learning nothing of what drove him as a writer, nothing
of his process, or how he approached novels versus screenplays.
The man was, after all, a writer, and I presume he would prefer to be
remembered as one. The film's treatment of Trumbo primarily
as a victim of political persecution seems unfair - the man
won an Oscar and a National Book Award. Johnny Got His Gun
remains a high school reading list mainstay. I'm not suggesting
that the blacklist and its effect on Trumbo shouldn't be remembered -
but this could easily have been a two-hour film that included additional
information about Trumbo's writing career.
In all, Trumbo feels
jumbled, and I question the presentation of the letters.
The letters deserve inclusion, but perhaps should have been read by
a single actor in voice-over. Trumbo's own voice is well-represented
in the film through footage of numerous interviews; it serves as a spry,
witty, articulate narrator. For that reason, and others, I feel
like Trumbo's letters - wonderful though they are - are meant
to be experienced on the page.
Although the approach is muddled, Trumbo is still an interesting film. The man himself was a towering figure - as an artist, but also as an American who stood up for his rights and did his part to hold fascism at bay when it was a very real threat in this country. Reservations aside, I still say Trumbo is recommended.