Peter Askin's Trumbo subscribes to the notion, at once novel and forehead-slappingly obvious, that the best way to pay homage to a great man of letters is through his own words. In archival footage, Dalton Trumbo cuts a dashing, unforgettable figure, with his hyper-verbal charm and a walrus mustache that looks both debonair and vaguely comic, but it's his literary voice that dominates the film, through letters performed by a giddy cavalcade of respected character actors and big movie stars.
A feature-film adaptation of Christopher Trumbo's play about his father, Trumbo documents with affection and humor Dalton Trumbo's rise to the apex of screenwriting fame, and his subsequent public humiliation and banishment at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee and its notorious blacklist. As Trumbo eloquently conveys in letters rife with righteous anger, HUAC was itself infinitely more unAmerican and antithetical to the noble values espoused in the Constitution than Trumbo or his blacklisted colleagues in the Hollywood Ten. Forced to go underground after his exile from the movie industry, Trumbo wrote under a series of pseudonyms and fronts, even winning an Oscar for 1956's The Brave One before Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas broke the blacklist by publicly crediting Trumbo for his work on Exodus and Spartacus, respectively.
Trumbo sexes up Trumbo's already dramatic story with a massive infusion of star power. Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, Joan Allen, Donald Sutherland, and David Strathairn are just some of the acting giants who brilliantly perform Trumbo's alternately irreverent, indignant, and heartbreakingly poignant letters. And his eloquence wasn't limited to matters of great importance: Trumbo clearly put as much humor and personality into a comic letter to his son on the virtues of guilt-free masturbation and a series of angry letters to the phone company as he did the screenplays and novels that made his name. Trumbo's ornery genius couldn't be contained by the screen or the pages of a book; it spilled into every aspect of his life. Trumbo emerges as a son's bittersweet valentine to his old man, and a tribute to the senior Trumbo's resilience, wit, and outrage in the face of a national disgrace. Askin's film makes it apparent that Trumbo wasn't just a literary legend, he was also one incorrigible, irrepressible son of a bitch.