"Trumbo", the new documentary about screenwriter/ novelist Dalton Trumbo is a good look at the famous screenwriter's life, but it doesn't provide a lot of new detail and fails to increase our knowledge of the subject or the infamous Hollywood Blacklist of the 50s.
Based on a play by Christopher Trumbo, Dalton's son, the new film uses a mixture of archival interview footage, new interviews and footage of current Hollywood stars reading some of the writer's correspondence to camera. The archival footage and photos is most interesting because it presents a portrait of the famous writer it would be difficult to portray otherwise.
We quickly learn Trumbo is one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, transitioning to Tinsel Town after the publication of a few books. In the late 40s, responding to the growth of Communism throughout the world, a handful of Senators begin hearings to determine if people involved with Hollywood are unduly trying to influence the American public through their projects. The House Un-American Activities Committee is formed and many studio heads are called forth to testify who they think might be Communist. Unfortunately, the studio heads go ahead with the inquisition and the Senators call another round of people to testify. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Robert Taylor and many, many others are called, most of whom refuse to cooperate. But some do cooperate and the questions soon turn to a group of writers and one director who would soon be called "The Hollywood Ten". Trumbo and director Edward Dymytrk were the most famous members of this group. Basically, each refused to testify and 'name names' of people they knew who were also involved in the Communist Party, refusing to incriminate others. The studios quickly banned together and agreed they would not hire people who refused to cooperate and the Blacklist was born. After some of these members went to jail, they moved to Mexico and formed a little expat community. And because they still needed to provide for their families, they began to write under assumed names and to use "fronts", people who would sell their screenplays for the blacklisted writers, keeping a small percentage for themselves.
It strikes me that a large percentage of the audience for this film will be people with at least a passing knowledge about the history of Hollywood and what makes it tick. Most of these people will be at least a little familiar with the story of the blacklist and HUAC. "Trumbo" helps to present a refresher course in the events most of the audience is already familiar with. But it doesn't really provide a lot of new information, or any insight into the entire sad history of these proceedings.
Throughout the film, a number of actors are shown on camera reading pieces of correspondence from the writer. Liam Neeson, Josh Lucas, Joan Allen, Paul Giamatti, Brian Dennehy and others stand or sit on a blank stage and read the letters Trumbo wrote to various people, acting the basic emotions behind the letter as they read. Paul Giamatti smiles mischievously when Trumbo is being cantankerous. Liam Neeson pauses dramatically when Trumbo is writing about the loss of a friend, and so on. It is an interesting idea, and attempt, to bring life to a particularly fruitful area of the writer's output. But it doesn't transcend the stagy premise behind the idea. I'm also not sure why some of the letters are read, how they fit into the overall story, except to give a more complete picture of the writer, providing more clues to his personality.
And there are interviews with Trumbo and many of the people who were involved in his life. Kirk Douglas is featured, even though it is difficult for him to say much in his current state. But this gives the filmmakers the opportunity to tell the story of "Spartacus" and how Douglas defied the blacklist and hired Trumbo to write the screenplay.
Don't get me wrong. "Trumbo" tells an important story, I just wish the filmmakers had more new material to present to us, something to explain in more detail how HUAC was formed in the first place. As it is, "Trumbo" feels more like a documentary you might see on PBS' "American Masters" series rather than something you should pay $12 to see at a movie theater.