Dir: Peter Askin. US. 2007. 96mins.
Peter Askin's endearing and sometimes strangely compromised documentary portrait Trumbo, a meditation on the life and times of the radical American screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, is an alternately rich and often bewildering mixture of theatre, family memoir and hot wired historical document.

The film's portrait of an artist who suffered grievous personal, professional and artistic injury during the anti-communist blacklist (1947-1960) has a furious and wounding quality. The material burns with an unquestionable fervor and intensity. The film's unusual assembly interweaves direct address interviews, sound recordings, and archival footage with actors performing sometimes hilarious, textured and discomfiting readings culled from the writer's private letters, Additional Dialogue.

The movie premiered at Toronto 's Real to Reel documentary programme. The brisk editing, in conjunction with the revealing and fascinating participation of many first-rate actors such as Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane and Liam Neeson lends this valuable, incomplete project a commercial viability that suggests promising returns in major urban markets and DVD sales. Save for video, the international prospects are far less assured.

The film's richness is unassailable, though it cries out for greater context, particularly when dealing with the compacted and complicated issues of the blacklist. Based on a play by the screenwriter's son Christopher Trumbo that Askin directed in New York, Trumbo presents a complex and often contradictory portrait of man. It surrenders too often to the cult of personality in favor of a deeper political and artistic interpretation.

The result is an entertaining, provocative film that is nonetheless somewhat shallow and strangely unsatisfying. The film is badly marred by the striking inconsistency between the shoddy visual qualify of the traditional elements, the direct address interviews with blacklist authorities such as Naming Names author Victor Navasky, and the sharp, lustrous HD quality of the staged readings.

One of the highest paid screenwriters of the classic Hollywood studio era, Trumbo (1905-76) was a brash, opinionated, cantankerous and often imperial personality. A member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of politically progressive directors and screenwriters cited for contempt of Congress for their refusal to cooperate with the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) in their investigation of alleged communist infiltration of the Hollywood industry, Trumbo was denied employment in film, radio and television. The personal and financial implications were profound, forcing the Trumbo family into exile in Mexico and an itinerant, hand to mouth existence.

The performed material is volcanic, brash, hilarious and often devastatingly sad. The highlight is Lane's profane and hilarious rendering of Trumbo's ode to masturbation, a feat of wonder and imagination that anticipates Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. The most emotionally devastating reading is Allen's recounting of a letter Trumbo wrote the mother of a friend he'd known as a war correspondent whom Trumbo used as a front to sell several of his scripts. The man died tragically young at age 29. Allen even loses composure at several points, underlining the deeper sense of loss and regret. In these moments, Trumbo is electrifying.

Like too many fiction films about the blacklist (Guilty by Suspicion, The Majestic), Trumbo is hurt by an unwillingness to actually explore Trumbo's own politics and delve into his actual beliefs about communism, Stalin or Marxist ideology. The movie completely omits any reference to the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideas (MPA), the pro-blacklist organization fronted by the town's conservative artistic faction, like John Wayne and Ward Bond. In fact, in one of the delicious ironies of Trumbo's life, one of his best known scripts, Kitty Foyle, was directed by Sam Wood, the most abrasive and unyielding of the MPA reactionaries.

The film also never acknowledges that some of Trumbo's best scripts, like Joseph Losey's The Prowler or John Berry's He Ran All the Way, were directed by blacklist victims.

Production companies
Safehouse Pictures (US)
Filbert Steps Productions (US)

International Sales agent
William Morris Independent (US)

Executive producer
Jim Kohlberg

Will Battersby
Tory Tunnell
Alan Klingenstein
David Viola

Kurt Engfehr

Robert Miller

Production designer
Stephanie Carroll

Frank Prinzi
Jonathan Furmanski
Fred Murphy
Chris Norr

Main cast
Joan Allen
Brian Dennehy
Michael Douglas
Paul Giamatti
Nathan Lane
Josh Lucas
Liam Neeson
David Strathairn
Donald Sutherland