The Hollywood Pen: Paean to Trumbo, Labor of Love, Misses Cold War Web

sarris1 The Hollywood Pen: Paean to Trumbo, Labor of Love, Misses Cold War WebTrumbo
Running time 96 minutes
Written by Christopher Trumbo
Directed by Peter Askin
Starring Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas and others

Peter Askin’s Trumbo is based on the play, Trumbo, by Christopher Trumbo, and is clearly a labor of love and ideological affinity for all the Hollywood celebrities who participated in the production. The Hollywood blacklist ensnared the playwright’s father, Dalton Trumbo, and many other talented people in the period of the cold war, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Senator Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and other cruel relics of a bygone era. Trumbo’s withering take on these instruments of his torture could be used as a club against the Bush-Cheney administration for its perceived assault on the Bill of Rights in the name of national security. It could be, but it shouldn’t be. Every age has its own nuances, and I happened to have lived through the period of Trumbo’s torments. For viewers of Trumbo who have not, it may seem that the national hysteria over the Red Menace was contrived simply to punish Trumbo (1905-1976) for his defense of the First Amendment.

A brief reference is made in the film to Winston Churchill’s coinage of the term “the Iron Curtain” to describe the Soviet Union’s absorption of several Eastern European countries into its oppressive orbit. But there is no mention at all of the right-wing Republican assault on the Truman administration for its alleged “softness” on Communism, which resulted in our “losing” China to Mao’s Red hordes. After all, the Republicans had been out of the White House for 15 years when Trumbo received his first subpoenas from the committee, and, then, as now, Hollywood was a prime target for right-wingers.

Yet in the selected Trumbo letters out of his 600-page collection, read by a succession of A-list actors, there is little attention paid to domestic politics, to the confrontation between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, which did so much damage to the Democratic party, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and Adlai Stevenson, the last candidate for whom I rang doorbells. There’s no mention of Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs, the theft of U.S. nuclear secrets for the Soviet Union.

These facts did not justify the Hollywood blacklist, nor Trumbo’s imprisonment for contempt of Congress, along with his equally “unfriendly” screenwriting colleagues. As it is, he emerges from the emotional readings of his letters as a witty punster with a great deal of personal charm, and, in my opinion, more than a little political guile. His language is relentlessly idealistic with only an occasional lapse into the incriminating “comrade” and the mourning over the fall of Barcelona to the fascists. He talks extensively of his military experience in the Pacific during World War II, but there is not a word about his activities in the ’30s and ’40s that made him vulnerable to exposure for his beliefs. It is not that he should have apologized for his Marxist thoughts in the middle of the Great Depression. His ability to survive despite all the obstacles placed in his path was heroic enough without his never acknowledging that he knew John Howard Lawson, the self-appointed commissar of many Hollywood screenwriters. Still, I do appreciate Trumbo for acknowledging much-abused director-producer Otto Preminger’s role in ending the Hollywood blacklist in 1960 by publicizing Trumbo’s screenplay credit for Exodus. Ultimately, Trumbo is well worth seeing for what it tells us about the age in which this irrepressible individualist lived, loved, suffered and finally triumphed. Indeed, his hilarious letter to his son, Chris—in college at the time—on the pleasures, glories and guilts of masturbation is alone worth the price of admission. Whatever reservations I have about Trumbo can be attributed to my liberal anti-communist mind-set, which demands that the whole tangled story of the cold war be told.

For the record, the reading ensemble for Trumbo consists of Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn and Donald Sutherland. The articulate interviewees are Emanuel Azenberg, Walter Bernstein, Larry Ceplair, Kirk Douglas, Peter Hanson, Dustin Hoffman, Lew Irwin, Kate Lardner, Helen Manfull, Victor Navasky, Jean Rouverol, Christopher Trumbo and Mitzi Trumbo.

asarris@observer.com