Trumbo is a documentary about the life of Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter and novelist who was part of the Hollywood Ten. The Ten were a group of screenwriters, directors, producers, and composers who were brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late 1940's to testify about their ties to the Communist party. When they refused to testify, claiming their rights under the First Amendment (freedom of speech), they were cited for contempt of Congress and sent to jail. As a result, the Ten and many others were blacklisted by the entertainment industry.
Trumbo the film is based on play written by Trumbo's son Christopher. It talks about Trumbo's life during the blacklisting (which lasted well into the 60's), and is punctuated by a number of actors giving readings from Trumbo's voluminous and witty correspondence. David Strathairn, Liam Neeson, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Brian Dennehy, Nathan Lane, Joan Allen, Josh Lucas, and Donald Sutherland all powerfully bring to life Trumbo's own words.
The film looks at the politics of the time but also looks at the impact on Trumbo's family. The financial hardships they faced, and the persecution his children encountered at school because of their father's stance. Interviews with people who worked with Trumbo also shed light on the man; Donald Sutherland worked with Trumbo on the film adaptation of Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun (1971); Dustin Hoffman worked with Trumbo on Papillon (1973); and Kirk Douglas talked about how one of the things he is most proud of in his life was putting Trumbo's name on screen as the writer of Spartacus, which, with his on-screen credit for Exodus in that same year, effectively ended the blacklist for Trumbo (but it would continue for others).
Trumbo is a very interesting and captivating documentary, with relevance today to those who would have their debate silenced in the name of patriotism.
Director Peter Askin, Trumbo's son Christopher, and one of Trumbo's daughters, Mitzi, along with Donald Sutherland did a Q&A after the film:
- Sutherland talked on how he loved working with Trumbo, if only for a couple of days on Johnny Got His Gun. He actually read the last four pages of the book to troops in the US and south-east Asia (although not in Vietnam), in between working on the film and when the film was finished. Sutherland went back and told Trumbo that he really needed to put those last pages in the film. Ron Kovic apparently said that those last 5 pages were responsible for his writing Born on the Fourth of July.
- Sutherland also mentioned how he had hired Mark Lane and Donald Freed to do a script for the movie Executive Action, about the Kennedy assassination, and Trumbo came on board to finalize the script.
- One older gentleman made a comment implying that the US government of the time was justified in its actions persecuting its own citizens in the entertainment industry because of the actions and atrocities of the Soviet Union at the time, and that the government was justified to be worried about these screenwriters spreading communist propaganda, with which Sutherland vehemently disagreed.
- On the actors who did the readings in the film; Askin talked about how Sutherland was well aware of Trumbo and his works, Michael Douglas knew Trumbo as a young man, and some had acted in the play on which the film is based (Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy).
- When asked if there were ever any apologies, Christopher Trumbo talked about how all of the guilds made a response (screenwriter, directors, actors, and extras), apologizing for not standing stronger in 1947 and 1951 and 1953, because they might have been able to stop the blacklist in its tracks had they had the courage to do something.
- Someone asked about the family's reaction to Elia Kazan's honorary Oscar in 1999. Askin talked about the divided reaction that night to the award, acknowledge that Kazan was a great artists, but that he did what he did; he's not sure if he would've stood or not had he been there that night.
- Christopher Trumbo talked about how it is a complicated question. He mentioned how the board of governors of the Academy voted to give Kazan the award (even though he already had 2 Oscars), but that only a day or two later some of the board members began to have second thoughts. Later on, there was a lot of commentary across the country as to whether the award was appropriate. They were protests outside the ceremony, but Christopher Trumbo did not attend. He is actually friends with Nick Kazan, Elia's son, and Trumbo did not want to be put in the position of his children seeing a friend of theirs protesting in this way - his own experiences are what led him to take that action.
- He wrote an article for the LA Free Press expressing what he thought was the difficulty with the whole process. In his mind, it came down to the people who would applaud this award would be the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, that it was their victory. Sutherland added that people should listen to one of Dalton Trumbo's comments, about those who inform upon their friends, and do you want to be associated with those type of people at the end of the day.
- Someone asked if the Trumbo children have a lot of painful memories of that time. Christopher Trumbo talked about how he never was afraid because his parents never communicated fear to him. He never felt that his parents hid anything from him. He felt he had a normal childhood that was just different than others.
- Sutherland further added an anecdote about being at the University of Toronto in 1953, as a freshman at South House at Victoria College, and on Halloween night burning Joseph McCarthy in effigy. They were all disguised under sheets, and they were photographed by Time magazine, which had inflated their numbers from 15 to 1500 raging students. Sutherland's mother in Nova Scotia phoned him and said she recognized his ears in the photo.
- Someone asked about Trumbo's wife Cleo and the other Trumbo daughter, neither of whom appeared in the film. Christopher said both are fine, his mother is 91, and his older sister is a psychotherapist in Seattle. She decided she didn't want to participate; Christopher had originally told Askin that he thought his older sister would want to participate but that his younger sister wouldn't, and it turned out the reverse was true. His mother had appeared in one documentary before, but she regretted it to such an extent she refused to do anything like that since.